Catch a falling rocket and bring it back to shore …
On Tuesday (it will still be Monday evening in New York), Rocket Lab, a small company with a small rocket, aims to pull off an impressive feat during its latest launch from the east coast of New Zealand. After sending a payload of 34 small satellites to orbit, the company will use a helicopter to catch the 39-foot-long used-up booster stage of the rocket before it splashes into the Pacific Ocean.
If the booster is in good shape, Rocket Lab may refurbish the vehicle, and then use it for another orbital launch, an achievement so far pulled off by only one company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Here’s what you need to know.
When and how can I watch the launch and catch attempt?
Rocket Lab is streaming video of the mission live on its YouTube channel, or you can watch it in the player embedded above.
The launch had been scheduled for 6:41 p.m. Eastern time. However, the company briefly put the liftoff in a hold status, before changing the new launch time to 6:49 p.m. Eastern time. The countdown was then resumed.
Why is Rocket Lab trying to catch its booster?
In the space launch industry, rockets used to be expensive single-use throwaways. Reusing them helps lower the cost of delivering payloads to space and could speed the pace of launching by reducing the number of rockets that need to be manufactured.
“Eighty percent of the cost of the whole rocket is in that first stage, both in terms of materials and labor,” Peter Beck, the chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview on Friday.
SpaceX pioneered a new age in reusable rockets and now regularly lands the first stages of its Falcon 9 rockets and flies them over and over. The second stages of the Falcon 9 (as well as Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket) are still discarded, typically burning up while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX’s next-generation super rocket called Starship is to be entirely reusable. Competitors like Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are similarly developing rockets that are at least partially reusable, as are companies in China.
NASA’s space shuttles were also partially reusable, but required extensive and expensive work after each flight, and they never lived up to their promise of airliner-like operations.
How will the catch operation work?
After launching, the booster will separate from the Electron rocket’s second stage at an altitude of about 50 miles, and during the descent, it will accelerate to 5,200 miles per hour.
A system of thrusters that expel cold gas will orient the booster as it falls, and thermal protection will shield it from temperatures exceeding 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
The friction of the atmosphere will act as a brake. Around 7 minutes, 40 seconds after liftoff, the speed of the booster’s fall will slow to under twice the speed of sound. At that point, a small parachute called the drogue will deploy, adding additional drag. A larger main parachute then further slows the booster to a more leisurely rate.
A Sikorsky S-92 helicopter hovering in the area at an altitude of 5,000 to 10,000 feet will meet the booster midair, dragging a line with a grappling hook across the line between the drogue and main parachutes.
After catching the booster, the helicopter is to carry it to a Rocket Lab ship or all the way back to land.