Rocket Lab will attempt to recover the booster on the upcoming Electron launch
Updated November 3rd to include OHB Sweden’s role on the satellite.
WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab says it will make a second attempt to get the Electron booster back into the air during the launch of a Swedish science satellite later this week.
On Nov. 1, Rocket Lab announced plans for its next Electron launch, a mission it calls “Catch Me If You Can.” The launch is scheduled for November 4 at 1:15 PM Eastern from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.
The launch will be the second attempt to recover the Electron’s first stage, a parachute descent, using a helicopter. U first attempt on May 2, a hook hanging from the helicopter grabbed the parachute, but the pilot released it moments later after noticing what the company called “different load characteristics than what we experienced in testing.” Instead, the stage splashed and the boat brought her back.
“Our first helicopter capture just a few months ago showed we could do what we set out to do with the Electron, and we’re eager to get the helicopter back out there and advance our rocket reusability even further by returning the dry stage for the first time,” said Peter Beck, executive director of Rocket Lab, in a statement about the upcoming launch.
In the months after launch, Beck said the company did additional training on the helicopter recovery itself, rather than changes to the rocket and its recovery systems. “We haven’t made any changes to the vehicle or any recovery system,” he said in an interview in late June. “It just comes down to getting the technique right and all the mission operations that go into it.”
He has hinted for months that another recovery attempt would happen in the near future, including at the company’s investor day event on September 21, when he said the next recovery attempt would be “soon.” The November 1 announcement was the first announcement of this launch, including payload and recovery plans.
Mid-air recovery is a key part of Rocket Lab’s plans to be able to reuse boosters after the company concluded that a propulsive landing, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, was not feasible for the small rocket. Capturing the booster before spraying avoids problems with salt water penetration.
Beck said at an investor day presentation that the work to try to recover Electron helps the company as it develops Neutron, its reusable mid-range launcher that will perform propulsive landings. “There’s no way we could have taken on Project Neutron with such speed and confidence without doing that,” he said, referring to the electron recovery. “We learned so much about re-entering Electron and going through the reuse process that it would have been ugly if we had just gone straight to Neutron as a reusable vehicle without learning all those super hard lessons.”
The upcoming launch will carry a single satellite, called MATS, or Mesospheric Airglow/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy. The satellite, funded by the Swedish National Space Agency and built by OHB Sweden with some components provided by AAC Clyde Space, will study waves in the upper atmosphere and how they affect weather and climate.
MATS was originally supposed to fly as a share on a Soyuz rocket, but the Swedish government canceled those plans in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The spacecraft, weighing about 50 kilograms, will go into a dawn-dusk synchronous orbit at an altitude of 585 kilometers.
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