Rocket Lab has joined SpaceX in a very exclusive club of orbital booster recovery-capable companies after it parachuted an Electron first stage back to Earth.
The primary goal of the "Return to Sender" mission was the deployment of 30 satellites to a Sun-synchronous orbit for a range of customers. The payload featured a technical demonstration of TriSept's tether system, designed to reduce orbital debris, as well as communication and surveillance satellites. It also deployed New Zealand's first student-built satellite for the Auckland Space Institute at the University of Auckland.
However, in an example of the "one more thing" ethos that seems to have captured the company of late, the 16th launch of an Electron booster also saw Rocket Lab complete a successful splashdown and recovery of the first stage of the rocket.
Welcome back to Earth Electron! pic.twitter.com/lI39kLAS4Z— Peter Beck (@Peter_J_Beck) November 20, 2020
Following the separation of the second stage, approximately two and a half minutes into the mission, the first stage of the Electron was rotated 180 degrees to orient it for return to Earth. The angle selected was intended to give the spent booster the best possible chance of surviving the heat and pressure of re-entry, referred to by the company as "The Wall".
The procedure had been rehearsed on earlier missions. The differentiator this time was the addition of parachutes to further slow the rate of descent. SpaceX, which lofts somewhat heftier payloads via its Falcon 9, opts for a propulsive landing.
As it descended, the stage was stabilised by a drogue parachute. A larger parachute then followed in the final kilometres to further reduce velocity before the rocket hit the ocean. A future mission will see an attempt to capture the descending booster by helicopter with an eye on reusing the vehicle.
Those future shenanigans depend on the state of this booster, which will be inspected once it arrives back at Rocket Lab's facilities. There are no plans to reuse this particular first stage following the planned dunking in the ocean.
The mission, which also sent gaming behemoth Valve's "Gnome Chompski" into space, left the company's New Zealand launch pad at 02:20 UTC on 20 November and was the third successful launch following July's failure.
Valve's Gabe Newell is to donate $1 to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Starship Children's Hospital for each view of the launch webcast. Over $80,000 has been raised at the time of writing, according to Rocket Lab, and those catching up on things via YouTube over the next few hours will also be counted toward the total. ®