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article imageRocket Lab plans on catching first-stage boosters with helicopter

By Karen Graham     Aug 7, 2019 in Technology
California-based Rocket Lab plans to start recovering and reflying the first stage of its Electron launch vehicle in the near future, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck announced on Tuesday.
If Rocket Lab is successful, it will become the second private space company to return a rocket booster to land - something only SpaceX has succeeded in doing.
Upstart Rocket Lab is already cementing itself as a leader in the smallSat launcher market. The company's Electron two-stage booster is 57 feet tall and four feet wide (17 by 1.2 meters). The Electron can loft a maximum of about 500 pounds (225 kilograms) on each roughly $5 million per liftoff.
In comparison, SpaceX's workhorse, the Falcon 9 rocket is 229 feet (70 m) tall and costs about $62 million to book a mission aboard one of these powerful boosters. SpaceX has perfected its technique in retrieving its first stage boosters - allowing the launch vehicle to be recycled two or even three times, at great savings to customers.
Successful drone ship landing of Falcon 9 booster in April  2016.
Successful drone ship landing of Falcon 9 booster in April, 2016.
YouTube
Like its competitor, SpaceX, Rocket Lab is also looking to shave costs to keep the Electron small and cost-effective, Beck said Tuesday at the 2019 Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah. However, Rocket Lab will be using an entirely different approach in retrieving its boosters, reports Space.com.
How will Rocket Lab recover a booster rocket?
SpaceX uses the engines on its rockets to slow down and control their descent, called a propulsive landing. In December 2015, SpaceX's Falcon 9 became the first launch vehicle on an orbital trajectory to successfully vertically-land and recover its first stage, although it was on a sub-orbital trajectory.
However, Beck says that achieving a propulsive landing like a Falcon 9 booster would require that the small Electron be turned into a medium-size rocket. "We're not in the business of building medium-sized launch vehicles," he said. "We're in the business of building small launch vehicles for dedicated customers to get on orbit frequently."
In an interview with CNBC, Beck explained that a secret landing development team at Rocket Lab did take a “deep dive into propulsive landings,” but in the end decided against it.
Rocket Lab decided on a different technology. The first phase involves retrieving the Electron boosters from the ocean and shipping them back to its US production complex to be refurbished. But it is the second phase of Rocket Lab's strategy that is really interesting, according to New Atlas.
The company plans on trying to catch the first stage before it splashes down, in mid-air, with a helicopter. After launch and the separation of its payload, the Electron rocket's first stage would re-enter the atmosphere, deploying a parachute to reduce its velocity.
Rocket Lab hopes to use helicopters to retrieve rockets for refurbishment.
Rocket Lab hopes to use helicopters to retrieve rockets for refurbishment.
Rocket Lab
Then, at the right time, a helicopter would fly in and collect the rocket by snaffling the line that connects it to the parachute, and gently place it on a ship to be hauled back to shore.
Back in June, when the Make it Rain Mission was launched, besides the satellites, Rocket Lab also had instruments onboard that allowed it to collect data specific to its recovery efforts.
Rocket Lab plans to begin Phase 1 in the coming year, company representatives said.
More about Rocket Lab, electron launch vehicle, Recycling, first stage, Helicopter
 
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