After launching one of its rockets to orbit on Thursday, small satellite launcher Rocket Lab successfully brought the vehicle back to Earth and landed it gently in the ocean underneath a series of parachutes. The maneuver was part of an intricate dress rehearsal, meant to practice nearly all of the steps Rocket Lab will take to recover and reuse its rockets in the future.
Rocket Lab’s primary rocket is the Electron, aimed at launching batches of small satellites into low Earth orbit. For all of the company’s 15 launches up until now, the Electron has been expendable, with an entirely new rocket used for each new mission. But in 2019, Rocket Lab announced its plans to try to save the majority of the Electron rocket following future launches, in order to reuse the vehicles for subsequent missions. And the company has been slowly progressing toward that goal ever since, testing out new maneuvers on its missions aimed at pulling off a recovery.
Rocket Lab’s recovery plan is quite different from that of SpaceX, which famously lands its Falcon 9 rockets either on a landing pad or on an autonomous drone ship after launch. For the Electron, Rocket Lab also envisions bringing the rocket back to Earth in a controlled manner following a flight. But once at a certain altitude, the Electron will deploy a drogue parachute and a main parachute to slow its fall. While the Electron slowly descends to Earth, Rocket Lab will send out a helicopter to snag hold of the parachutes’ line, effectively catching the vehicle from mid-air and preventing the hardware from hitting the ocean.
During this 16th launch, Rocket Lab practiced those steps, including the parachute deploy, after launching the Electron from the company’s main facility in New Zealand. However, the company skipped the final step of snatching the Electron out of the air, and the rocket ultimately splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The goal all along was to see if the company could bring the rocket back intact and land it in one piece in the ocean. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck tweeted out an initial photo of the Electron underneath a parachute, and hosts during the launch’s livestream said that more photos would be shared in the coming days.
Rocket Lab plans to fish the Electron rocket out of the water and get the hardware back to a factory to examine it in detail. Engineers outfitted this Electron with extra sensors to collect data during the launch and descent, as the team wants to see what kind of state the vehicle is in after its whirlwind trip to space and back. Then they’ll have a better understanding of when they can try the helicopter mid-air grab. It’s also possible this particular rocket could fly again if it’s in good enough shape.
While the recovery got most of the attention, Rocket Lab launched 30 satellites into space on this mission, too. The satellites ranged from surveillance to communication probes, and also included a vehicle tasked with demonstrating a new tether technology aimed at ridding space of unnecessary and dangerous debris. Also on this mission was a 3D-printed statue of a garden gnome, provided by Gabe Newell, the founder of Valve Software. Named Gnome Chompski, the statue is modeled after a prop from the Half-Life video game series and served as a fun way to simulate mass during the flight. For this mission, Newell vowed to donate $1 to the Starship Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in New Zealand for every person who tuned into Rocket Lab’s launch livestream.