Catch a falling missile and bring it back to shore…
On Tuesday (it’s still Monday night in New York), Rocket Lab, a small rocket company, aims to put in an impressive feat during its final launch from New Zealand’s east coast. After sending a payload of 34 small satellites into orbit, the company will use a helicopter to capture the rocket’s 39-meter-long, spent booster stage before it splashes into the Pacific Ocean.
If the booster is in good working order, Rocket Lab can refurbish the vehicle and then use it for another orbital launch, a feat so far delivered by only one company, Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Here’s what you need to know.
When and how can I watch the launch and capture attempt?
Rocket Lab is streaming video of the mission live on its YouTube channel, or you can watch it in the player embedded above.
The launch was scheduled for 6:41 p.m. Eastern Time. However, the company put the launch on hold for a while before changing the new launch time to 6:49 PM Eastern Time. Then the countdown resumed.
Why is Rocket Lab trying to catch his booster?
In the space launch industry, rockets used to be expensive, single-use items. Reusing them can reduce the cost of delivering payloads to space and speed up the launch rate by reducing the number of missiles to be manufactured.
“Eighty percent of the cost of the entire rocket is in that initial phase, both in materials and labor,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in an interview on Friday.
SpaceX pioneered a new era in reusable rockets and now regularly lands and flies the first stages of its Falcon 9 rockets. The Falcon 9’s second stages (as well as Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket) are still being discarded, mostly burning up as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. SpaceX’s next-generation super rocket, called Starship, should be fully reusable. Competitors such as Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are similarly developing rockets that are at least partially reusable, as are companies in China.
NASA’s space shuttles were also partially reusable, but required extensive and expensive work after each flight, and they never lived up to their promise of airplane-like operations.
How does the catch operation work?
After launch, the booster will separate from the second stage of the Electron rocket at an altitude of about 80 kilometers and accelerate to 5,200 miles per hour during the descent.
A system of thrusters that emit cold gas will orient the booster if it falls, and thermal guards will protect it from temperatures over 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
The friction of the atmosphere will act as a brake. About 7 minutes, 40 seconds after takeoff, the speed of the booster’s fall will slow to less than twice the speed of sound. At that point, a small parachute called the drogue will deploy, adding extra resistance. A larger main chute then further slows the booster to a more relaxed speed.
A Sikorsky S-92 helicopter hovering in the area at an altitude of 5,000 to 10,000 feet will meet the booster in mid-air and drag a grappling line across the line between the pilot and the main parachutes.
After the booster is captured, the helicopter must deliver it to a Rocket Lab ship or all the way back to land.