interview New Zealand’s Rocket Lab will launch another Electron rocket – a precursor to the rocket man’s first attempt to catch a descending booster. The registry met with CEO Peter Beck to discuss helicopters, Mars and visits to Venus.
The start with the title “Love at First Insight” is currently at the earliest on 16. “outside the family floor sensor reading” when the launch window opened yesterday morning) and has the main objective of launching a pair of Earth observation satellites into Black Sky orbit. Also on display at the launch will be Rocket Lab’s latest addition to its recovery technology.
Unlike SpaceX’s crowd-pleasing propulsion spur, the Rocket Lab Electron’s first stage will parachute down and attempt a controlled dive into the ocean, making it the third ocean rescue (if all goes well). grab the stage on shutdown. This time, however, everything is taken care of except an attempt to catch the missile.
The launch is the second since a payload, also a pair of Black Sky satellites, was lost on the “Running Out Of Toes” mission when the second stage engine was shut down prematurely. The incident somewhat overshadows the ocean ditching and booster recovery, and has left the company with an unenviable track record; two payload losses at 21 launches are a clear reminder of the difficulty of the operation.
“What we’re going to do with this one,” says Beck, “is everything we’ve done so far, except that we bring the helicopter two hundred nautical miles from the coast and we will adapt it” [the descending booster] and basically follow down and simulate a catch. “
It will be an impressive maneuver. The Electron has to withstand enormous pressure, as the nine Rutherford engines in its base are exposed to temperatures of up to 2,200 ° C when the stage returns. And that before the parachutes pop out and the booster falls to a height where it could be caught by helicopter.
“The hardest part is not really hooking it up,” Beck says with the confidence of someone who won’t fly the helicopter. “It’s not that difficult,” he adds. “The hard part is from start to finish [descending] under the parachute; Manage the entire trajectory, get it where it should be, and get the helicopter to the right altitude at the right time. “
If everything goes according to plan, the helicopter will attempt to catch the descending booster on the next rescue mission before all the expensive hardware hits the water. Not that the Electron is particularly expensive compared to the much larger alternatives, but as Beck says: “If you get that first stage back, you basically get 80 percent of the cost of the vehicle back.” Probably a little more when you consider the material and labor costs involved in building the launcher.
The launch will be from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. It has another pad in the US on Wallops Island but is waiting for NASA approval for its autonomous flight termination system before Electrons can begin launching.
However, a second pad was built in New Zealand, which Beck described as “a really great trailblazer” because of the higher launch frequency the company could afford. The pad has yet to be officially opened, but Beck says, “It looks like a pad … so there isn’t that much stuff [left] to do there. “
The second New Zealand pad should go into action next year, and the precursor mission of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) for the Lunar Gateway should also start in 2022.
Also on the program are the twin Mars ESCAPADE spacecraft and Beck’s personally financed mission to Venus. And then there is the much more powerful neutron launcher.
“A lot is much easier,” says Beck about the development of the neutron and its infrastructure compared to the “thick” (his words) world of the electron. “When you have a bit of a yardstick, it’s so much easier.”
Life as a stock corporation is not that easy. While Rocket Lab has an impressive backlog with clients like NASA and the US Space Force and, according to Beck, “has been preparing to be a public company for several years,” things have changed.
“It’s different,” he admits. “I think what is less pleasant for me is that we always only talked about things that we did, or it was very, very far away. Now we need to talk about things that we haven’t done and is in the future. “
And the space industry loves their PowerPoint rockets. Even if Beck prefers the real thing. ®