Small satellite launcher Rocket Lab is following in the footsteps of rocket behemoth SpaceX with plans to make its rockets reusable. But Rocket Lab won’t be landing its vehicles in the same fashion as SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Instead, the company plans to catch its rockets in mid-air with a helicopter after they’ve fallen back to Earth.
Rocket Lab announced these plans today at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah. The company says the goal is to increase the frequency of launches of its primary rocket, called the Electron. By saving the vehicles when they return to Earth, Rocket Lab hopes to turn them around and re-launch them again as soon as possible. And that shouldn’t be too difficult since some of the vehicle’s machinery runs on electric batteries.
The method shares a few similarities to how SpaceX lands its rockets, but the key difference is that the Electron won’t be landing itself on a solid platform with its own engine — what’s known as a propulsive landing. Beck says that’s because the smaller sized Electron couldn’t really accommodate this kind of recovery. “The fundamental reason for that is that takes a small launch vehicle and turns it into a medium-sized launch vehicle,” says Beck. “And we’re not in the business of building medium-sized launch vehicles. We’re in the business of building small launch vehicles.”
Rocket Lab’s entire business model is centered around the small satellite revolution. Originally, satellites cost millions of dollars to make and were built the size of school buses. But over the past decade, manufacturers have developed ways to make satellites smaller and smaller, thanks to standardization and miniaturization of consumer electronics.
Over the next few missions, Rocket Lab will add some major updates to the Electron leading up to the first attempted helicopter catch to help make the vehicle recoverable. The first major goal is to get the Electron through the atmosphere in one piece before attempting a helicopter recovery. Beck also says any future Rocket Lab customers should not be concerned about their payloads as changes are made to the rocket. “If you’re flying on us, don’t anybody panic, because all of these upgrades are completely standalone to Electron,” he says. “They don’t interface with any of the current flight systems. They’re all passive.”
“Launch frequency is the thing that is going to change this industry and quite frankly, going to change the world,” says Beck. “Because if we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities.”