Rocket Lab has made improvements to the first stage of the Electron rocket to make it more resilient to ocean water, upgrades that will be put to the test with tonight’s launch.
The “Baby Come Back” mission will launch from the company’s launch complex on Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand, with a launch window that opens at 7:30 PM EST. The primary purpose of the mission is the delivery of four satellites for NASA, two weather intelligence satellites for Spire Global and a demonstrator sat for Canadian satellite communications company Telesat.
The four-cubesat NASA mission, called Starling, will test the satellites’ ability to autonomously coordinate their movements, or “swarm,” in orbit. The satellites will also demonstrate the ability to plan and execute movements without guidance from human mission controllers.
After launch, the first stage will descend back to Earth under a parachute and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Rocket Lab’s recovery boat will then haul the booster out of the water and return it to a company production facility for analysis.
Rocket Lab has fished first stages out of the ocean before, but this time around the stage will include new designs to make some key engine and avionics components even more water-hardened. There will be a few other changes to the entire recovery process, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said, including a lighter parachute and a different method for lifting the stage out of the water.
The company has been working on making Electron’s first stage reusable since late 2018, the year it first began launching payloads to orbit. The following year, Rocket Lab announced that it would pursue to methods for recovery: via ocean splashdown, and by catching the first stage mid-air using a helicopter.
Rocket Lab has attempted the catch with a helicopter twice, with the first attempt ending in a partial success after the helicopter briefly caught, and then released, the booster. The second attempt was called off completely due to a loss of telemetry data from the stage; but this turned out to be a positive turn of events, Beck told investors earlier this year.
“Electron survived an ocean recovery in remarkably good condition, and in a lot of cases its components actually pass requalification for flight.”
Encouraged by these results, Rocket Lab seems to have fully transitioned away from helicopter capture. While Rocket Lab has yet to refly a booster, it is planning on reusing a Rutherford engine on a mission later this year.