Rocket Lab’s 10th launch tests booster recovery technology

Rocket Lab’s 55-foot-tall (17-meter) Electron launcher lifted off from Launch Complex 1 at Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island at 3:18 a.m. EST (0818 GMT) Friday. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab closed out its 2019 launch schedule Friday with the 10th flight of the company’s Electron small satellite launcher, successfully deploying seven payloads in orbit while demonstrating new re-entry guidance and control technology to move closer to recovering and reusing future boosters.

The 10th launch of an Electron rocket — and the sixth this year — lifted off from Launch Complex 1 at Rocket Lab’s privately-run space base on New Zealand’s North Island at 3:18 a.m. EST (0818 GMT) Friday. The 55-foot-tall (17-meter) launcher took off at 9:18 p.m. local time in New Zealand and soared into a clear evening sky against a fading twilight sky.

Rocket Lab scrubbed a launch attempt Nov. 29 to repair a problem with a ground umbilical for the Electron’s second stage, and the launch team paused the countdown more than 20 minutes Friday to allow ground winds to subside at the launch site.

Once the countdown resume, clocks smoothly ticked down to launch time and nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford main engines ignited to push the Electron into the sky.

Turning south, the Electron reached supersonic speed in about one minute. Powered by nearly 50,000 pounds of thrust, the rocket’s first stage accelerated the vehicle to more than 5,100 mph (8,300 kilometers per hour) and an altitude of nearly 250,000 feet (74 kilometers).

The rocket shut down its first stage engines and jettisoned the booster around two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, then the Electron’s second stage and Curie kick stage delivered seven small satellites into orbit.

The Electron rocket is pictured streaking into the sky Friday in this long exposure photo. Credit: Sam Toms/Rocket Lab

The all-black carbon composite first stage on Friday’s mission debuted several upgrades aimed at moving Rocket Lab closer to recovering and reusing rockets, a decision the company’s chief executive says will help allow a faster launch cadence and lower costs.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s CEO, tweeted Friday that the Electron first stage performed better than expected during Friday’s flight and survived its guided high-speed plunge back through the thick layers of the atmosphere, a re-entry Beck compares to hitting a wall.

“Electron made it through wall! Solid telemetry all the way to sea level with a healthy stage. A massive step for recovery!!” Beck tweeted.

“Not only is this tenth mission a significant milestone launch for us, but our first guided stage re-entry was a complete success,” Beck said in a statement. “The stage made it through the harsh re-entry environment intact, which is an outstanding result for a first test of our recovery systems. It’s a huge testament to the relentless drive and commitment of our team that we’ve reached ten flights in just our second year of commercial launches.”

Rocket Lab did not attempt to actually recover the stage Friday, and the Electron booster did not carry a decelerator. On future missions, the company plans to use a helicopter to catch the rocket — suspended under a parachute — to ensure it is not contaminated by ocean water.

“It’s purely to just punch it into the atmosphere, fully guided, as deep as we can and gather data,” Beck said in an interview with Spaceflight Now before Friday’s launch. “Flight 10 is about pushing it deep into the atmosphere and really understanding the hypersonic flow and the heating regime.”

Rocket Lab aims to become the second commercial rocket company to recover and reuse orbital-class boosters. SpaceX landed its first Falcon 9 booster in 2015, and began re-flying Falcon 9 rockets in 2017.

SpaceX uses cold gas thrusters to re-orient its Falcon 9 first stages, then reignites a subset of the Falcon 9’s Merlin engines to slow down for propulsive landings, using thrust and grid fins to steer it back to a drone ship at sea or toward an onshore recovery site.

Rocket Lab will also use cold gas thrusters, which were installed on Friday’s launch. But the company is taking a different approach for recovery.

In its webcast of Friday’s launch, Rocket Lab provided side-by-side views from cameras on the first stage of the Electron rocket as it re-entered the atmosphere (left) and from the second stage (right) as it accelerated into orbit. Credit: Rocket Lab

Because the Electron rocket is much smaller than the Falcon 9, there’s not enough leftover propellant to attempt a propulsive landing.

“We don’t intend to use grid fins,” Beck said before Friday’s launch. “We have other types of measures. The most important thing on this (next) one is the active guidance with the RCS and making sure we maintain a really tight corridor with the base heat shield first, and just push it as deep as we can go.”

The first stage on Friday’s mission carried additional guidance and navigation hardware, including S-band telemetry and on-board flight computer, to gather data during the booster’s scorching-hot re-entry, according to Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab says Friday’s launch was the company’s last mission of the year. The company aims for a faster cadence of launches next year, and teams plan a full booster recovery attempt in 2020.

Rocket Lab has also developed a manufacturing robot to more quickly produce rocket parts. The U.S.-New Zealand rocket company has its corporate headquarters and manufactures engines in Southern California, and produces structure and has its primary launch site in New Zealand.

Early next year, Rocket Lab will begin launching Electron missions from a new facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.

The largest payload deployed in orbit on Friday’s mission was a microsatellite designed to release hundreds of colorful sky pellets to fall into the atmosphere next year, creating an artificial meteor shower that could be visible to millions.

The satellite, built and owned by Tokyo-based Astro Live Experiences, launched into a 250-mile-high (400-kilometer) polar orbit to prepare for next year’s sky spectacle. On-board thrusters will help target re-entry over a specific region for the artificial shooting stars.

The Japanese ALE-2 microsatellite is seen deploying from the Curie kick stage Friday. Credit: Rocket Lab

ALE has not announced the location or exact time for the meteor shower demonstration, but the event might be scheduled during the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

The 165-pound (75-kilogram) ALE-2 satellite measures 2 feet by 2 feet by 2.6 feet (60 x 60 x 80 centimeters). Its ride into orbit Friday was arranged by Spaceflight, a Seattle-based launch broker for small satellites.

The other six tiny satellites aboard the Electron rocket were 2-inch (5-centimeter) PocketQube picosatellites from the Scottish satellite manufacturer and mission management provider Alba Orbital.

Alba Orbital arranged the launch of all six PocketQubes, which are smaller and cheaper than most CubeSats, for customers in the United States, Spain and Hungary.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.