Electron rocket uses previously-flown engine for launch radar-imaging satellite

Rocket Lab launched its 40th Electron mission Wednesday, Aug. 23, after a switch to a recoverable rocket, which was fitted for the first time with a previously-flown engine. The rocket lifted off from the company’s privately-owned spaceport on the North Island of New Zealand, carrying a radar-imaging satellite, at 7:45 p.m. EDT (11:45 a.m. NZST on the 24th / 2345 UTC).

A recoverable Electron rocket lifts off from the North Island of New Zealand carrying the Acadia 1 satellite for Capella Space. Image: Rocket Lab.

The surprise move to a recoverable booster came after two launch scrubs blamed on engine sensor glitches. It was the third planned recovery of an Electron booster at sea, after Rocket Lab abandoned plans to catch returning boosters with a helicopter.

One of the rocket’s nine 3D-printed Rutherford engines had previously flew on the first stage of the ‘There and Back Again’ mission in May 2022. Rocket Lab said the engine worked flawlessly.

“The data is in, perfect performance from the reused engine and the stage,” said Rocket Lab founder and Chief Executive Peter Beck.

The Electron first-stage booster falls away from the second-stage to be begin the recovery phase of its mission. Image: Rocket Lab.

On Friday, Beck posted an image on Twitter showing the booster being ferried back to sure on the recovery ship. It had splashed down in the Pacific, about 560 km south-east of the launch site.

A recovery vessel, equipped with cranes and platforms to lift the booster out of the sea, was seen in the launch webcast speeding towards the splashdown zone. After retrieving the rocket an important task for the recovery crews was to flush out corrosive salt water.

A single Ruthford vacuum engine on the second-stage and a kick stage with a Curie engine finished Electron’s mission, deploying the Acadia 1 satellite for Earth observation company Capella Space about 58 minutes into the flight. Acadia 1, is the first of four new radar-imaging satellites. The mission is named “We Love the Nightlife” for the satellite’s ability to make observations day and night.

Capella Space said this next generation of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Earth-imaging satellites is designed to “expand the existing Capella constellation to provide highest quality imagery, best ground-range resolution, and the fastest order-to-delivery speeds available from any commercial SAR provider.”

Artist’s impression of Capella’s Acadia radar-imaging satellite. Image: Capella.

A different Electron rocket had been poised to launch Acadia 1 on July 30 but there was an abort after engine ignition, just moments before liftoff. A second attempt on August 6 was called off about 15 minutes before the opening of the launch window.

At the time of the first launch attempt, Beck suspected the first abort was caused by “a tricky pressure transducer.” After the second scrub he reported: “Still not happy with one of the engine sensors.”

The low ignitor pressure reading on the single engine forced Rocket Lab to return the Electron vehicle to the hangar for further investigation.

“To keep the mission on schedule, and also expedite Rocket Lab’s reusability efforts, the fairing, with Capella payload integrated within, was swapped onto the next available recovery-configured first stage in Rocket Lab’s production line,” the company said in a press release.

The work certify the engine for re-flight, included multiple full-mission duration hot fires.

“The engines we’re bringing back from previous recovery missions are performing exceptionally well through requalification and acceptance testing, so we’re excited to send one on its second trip to space as one of the final steps before reflying an entire first stage,” Beck said in the Rocket Lab statement.