Rocket Lab is hoping to advance its reusability program one step forward tonight, when it will attempt to recover the booster from its Electron rocket for the third time.
The “Love at First Insight” mission is set to take off at 11:25 PM EST from the company’s launch facility on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. You can watch the launch live on Rocket Lab’s website here.
Rocket Lab has successfully recovered the first-stage booster twice before, the only other company besides SpaceX to do so. The first recovery took place November 2020 and then again in May 2021, though that latter mission resulted in a complete loss of payload (more on that below). Both boosters made a splashdown via parachute, and if all goes to plan, the booster tonight will too. But this recovery attempt has an added twist: this time, a helicopter will be hovering nearby to track and observe the booster as it makes its descent.
The addition of the helicopter is significant; it means Rocket Lab is getting closer to attempting its ultimate plan for reusability: using a parachute to slow the velocity of the booster enough that the helicopter can capture it in mid-air. While the helicopter won’t be attempting a mid-air capture tonight, it will be performing requisite tests to ensure the concept of operations is viable in the future.
“We’ve perfected Electron’s controlled descent, demonstrated flawless parachute deployment, and successfully plucked stages from the ocean. Now we’re gearing up for the next stage – preparing to use a helicopter to catch a rocket as it descends to Earth from space,” CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “It’s ambitious, but with each recovery mission we’ve iterated and refined the hardware and processes to make the impossible ordinary.”
The primary goal of the mission will be to send two BlackSky Earth imaging satellites to orbit, part of a rapid five-launch agreement for BlackSky between Rocket Lab and launch services provider Spaceflight Inc. The satellites were originally scheduled to go up in August, part of a launch schedule that included two other dedicated missions, but those were delayed due to lockdown restrictions caused by a small outbreak of coronavirus in New Zealand.
“Operations have experienced disruptions due to some of the most restrictive COVID-19 measures globally, including current stay-at-home orders which prevent launch operations from taking place,” CEO Peter Beck told investors during a third quarter earnings call.
The two BlackSky satellites will join seven others already in orbit, part of the geospatial intelligence company’s larger plans to grow its constellation to 14 satellites by the end of this year. Earlier this year, two BlackSky satellites were lost due to a significant anomaly that occurred shortly after the Electron’s second-stage ignited.
This is Rocket Lab’s 22nd Electron launch and the fifth mission this year.