Rocket Lab USA, Inc. will attempt a controlled, ocean splashdown and recovery of the first stage of an Electron rocket during the company’s next launch in November.
The mission will be Rocket Lab’s third ocean recovery of an Electron stage; however, it will be the first time a helicopter will be stationed in the recovery zone around 200 nautical miles offshore to track and visually observe a descending stage in preparation for future aerial capture attempts. The helicopter will not attempt a mid-air capture for this mission but will test communications and tracking to refine the concept of operations (CONOPS) for future Electron aerial capture.
The ‘Love At First Insight’ mission is scheduled to lift-off from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand during a 14-day launch window that opens on November 11, 2021, UTC. The mission’s primary objective is to deploy two Earth Observation (EO) satellites for global monitoring company BlackSky, with the secondary objective to splash down and recover Electron’s first stage to further validate Rocket Lab’s recovery operations and hardware.
Rocket Lab will be tracking the stage’s descent from space and as it approaches 19,000 ft (5.7 km) from the ocean surface, a helicopter will be dispatched to conduct reconnaissance of the returning booster. The ‘Love At First Insight’ mission will also include new recovery hardware developments to Electron including an advanced parachute to be deployed from the first stage at a higher-altitude, allowing for a slower drift back to Earth to test communications and tracking for future aerial recovery.
Electron also features improvements to the first stage heat shield which protects the rocket’s nine Rutherford engines while they endure up to 2200 °C heat and incredible pressure on the descent back to Earth. A team of Rocket Lab engineers and technicians will again be stationed at sea with their purpose-built Ocean Recovery and Capture Apparatus (ORCA) to retrieve the stage from the ocean and return it to Rocket Lab’s production complex in New Zealand for analysis and inspection.
“As one of only two companies to recover an orbital-class booster from space, we’ve proven it’s possible to make Electron the world’s first orbital-class reusable small launch vehicle,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab founder and CEO. “We’ve perfected Electron’s controlled descent, demonstrated flawless parachute deployment, and successfully plucked stages from the ocean. Now we’re gearing up for the next stage – preparing to use a helicopter to catch a rocket as it descends to Earth from space. It’s ambitious, but with each recovery mission we’ve iterated and refined the hardware and processes to make the impossible ordinary. I’m excited to take what we learn from this launch and put it into practice with aerial capture missions in future.”
The ‘Love At First Insight’ mission follows two previous ocean splashdown recovery missions; the ‘Return to Sender’ mission in November 2020, and the ‘Running Out of Toes’ mission in May 2021. A live stream of the launch and real-time updates of recovery operations for ‘Love At First Insight’ will be available on Rocket Lab’s social media channels and website.
Approximately two and a half minutes after lift-off, the nine Rutherford engines on Electron’s first stage will shut down and Electron’s first and second stages will separate. Electron’s second stage will continue with the customer’s payload to space, where the Kick Stage will separate and deploy the satellites. Following stage separation, Electron’s first stage will begin its descent. A cold-gas reaction control system will position the stage on an ideal angle to re-enter the atmosphere.
While descending, Electron’s first stage is expected to experience intense heat and pressure while traveling up to eight times the speed of sound before significantly decelerating to enable a drogue parachute to be deployed. At approximately seven and a half minutes into the mission, Electron’s drogue parachute will be deployed at around 43,000 ft (13 km) altitude. This drogue parachute both increases the booster’s drag and stabilizes its descent as it approaches the ocean.
Earlier and higher than on previous flights, the large main parachute will be deployed less than a minute after the drogue, at an altitude of 19,000 ft (5.7 km) to further slow the stage and enable a controlled splashdown. A key objective of this mission is to increase the drift-time of Electron’s first stage to test communications and tracking for future aerial recovery efforts.
Upon receiving the all-clear from the recovery team stationed at sea, a nearby helicopter will be deployed to sight the returning stage and observe its descent to record data that will help refine Electron aerial capture CONOPS. Once in the ocean, Rocket Lab engineers will attempt to retrieve the stage onboard their vessel with their purpose-built Ocean Recovery and Capture Apparatus (ORCA), a specialised cradle and winch system manufactured to Electron specifications and dimensions, before transporting the stage back to Rocket Lab’s production complex for analysis and inspection.
The ‘Love At First Insight’ mission is the latest in a multi-launch agreement signed earlier this year for BlackSky between Rocket Lab and Spaceflight Inc., which is providing integration and mission management services for BlackSky. This mission will deploy the eighth and ninth satellites of BlackSky’s planned constellation as part of that rapid-launch agreement, with another four Gen-2 smallsats across the two additional Electron dedicated missions to follow.