December 4, 2020
Rocket Lab will try splashdown recovery on the way to dramatic midair grab

Rocket Lab launch: Watch plucky SpaceX competitor attempt booster recovery live


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The booster will deploy a parachute on its return to Earth.


Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab is following in the footsteps of SpaceX by going to some pretty dramatic lengths to recycle its rockets. The startup with facilities in the US and New Zealand will attempt to recover the first-stage booster from one of its Electron rockets for the first time during a mission set for Thursday, Nov. 19. The company is currently targeting a nearly three-hour launch window that opens at 5:44 p.m. PT. 

After boosting a number of small satellites — and one particularly special garden gnome — toward orbit for the mission, appropriately dubbed Return to Sender, the first stage will separate and head to a controlled soft water landing in the Pacific Ocean using parachutes. From there, the floating rocket will be retrieved by a recovery vessel. 

Recovering a rocket using parachutes is hardly a new concept. It’s something NASA has pursued in the not-too-distant past. And it’s arguably not as dramatic as the propulsive landing system that SpaceX uses, but this is just a stepping stone to bigger plans that involve plucking a used Electron booster out of midair during its descent using a helicopter. 

“What we’re trying to achieve with Electron is an incredibly difficult and complex challenge, but one we’re willing to pursue to further boost launch cadence and deliver even more frequent launch opportunities to small satellite operators,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, said in a statement.

Rocket Lab demonstrated a midair capture of a mock rocket stage with a helicopter in April.

Snatching the booster out of the air prevents the possibility of damage from a water landing and floating around in salt water for a period. 

“Bringing a whole first stage back intact is the ultimate goal, but success for this mission is really about gaining more data, particularly on the drogue and parachute deployment system,” Beck explained. “Regardless of the condition the stage comes back in, we’ll learn a great deal from this test and use it to iterate forward for the next attempt.”

The launch window for the Return to Sender mission from the company’s New Zealand launch facility started Nov. 15, but has been pushed back a few times due to weather.  

We have a live feed of the recovery mission right here, so you can watch along live. Coverage starts approximately half an hour before launch.  


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