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3 mins read 06 Dec 2019

Rocket Lab successfully launches tenth Electron mission, tests recovery

NZ space-launch company, Rocket Lab successfully launches its 10th Electron rocket – completing its first test of booster stage recovery.

Illustration of Rocket stage 1 returning to Earth, commencing re-entry burn. Earth is in the background.
Illustration of re-entering Stage 1 of the Electron booster. Credit: Rocket Lab / Twitter.

New Zealand (NZ) space-launch company, Rocket Lab has successfully completed the launch of its 10th Electron booster mission, placing several small payloads into orbit, this evening, launching from Launch Complex 1, on NZ’s Mahia peninsula. The Electron rocket booster stage one was also successfully tested for recovery, heralding the next stage of Rocket Lab’s strategic objectives of launch systems reusability.

The 10th mission, called Running Out Of Fingers, carried six spacecraft into orbit, including 5cm PocketQube microsatellites from Alba Orbital, in addition to an additional payload for Tokyo-based space mission company ALE Co., Ltd (ALE).

This was also the first assessment of the new next-gen Electron booster rocket (Stage 1), designed as Rocket Lab’s first test and analysis of guided, full telemetry re-entry of the stage as a part of Rocket Lab’s plans to re-use and re-fly the rocket in the future. Onboard, the recovery instrumentation included guidance and navigation hardware (including S-band telemetry) and an onboard flight computer systems used to live-gather data during atmospheric re-entry, as well as reaction control the orientation of the booster rocket.

"Solid telemetry all the way to sea level with a healthy stage. A massive step for recovery!!" tweeted Rocket Lab CEO, Peter Beck. 

It’s hoped the data gathered from today’s recovery will allow Rocket Lab to refurbish and relaunch the booster. In late 2018, Rocket Lab announced its reuse program, which includes capturing the Electron stage mid-air with a helicopter – which can be challenging.

Stage 1 of the Electron booster returns to Earth at Mach 8.5 (about 8,200 km/h) which causes the stage to heat up in the atmosphere to roughly 2,900 degrees Celsius. What the team aims to learn more about is how to control the rocket as it returns to Earth, in addition to removing energy (speed and heat) from the booster before capture.

Computer simulation image showing long tube of stage one Electron returning to Earth with aerodynamic arcs draw around it like a wind tunnel.
Computer simulation of Electron’s Stage 1 as it re-enters the atmosphere. Credit: Rocket Lab / Twitter.

Whilst there was no capture in today’s mission, more test missions will follow as part of the launch program – allowing Rocket Lab to fine-tune productivity, efficiency, and accuracy before a real recovery occurs.

The company’s mission is to make access to space responsive and easy and has developed a product line that reduces barriers to entry for the global space industry. In addition to the Electron launch booster, Rocket Lab also has two launch sites – Mahia Peninsula in NZ which is licensed for 120 launches per year and Wallops Island, Virginia USA. Lastly, the company recently released its Photon satellite bus product – a pre-built spacecraft that any organisation can purchase and insert its sensors into, negating the need to build the shell of the satellite.

Rocket Lab was founded in 2006 by CEO Peter Beck and have been operating in NZ since, helping boost the country’s space industry through rapid commercialisation. In December 2018, NASA used Rocket Lab to launch several small satellites into orbit.