Rocket Lab helicopter grabs parachute to test rocket reuse


An animation shows the Rocket Lab Electron rocket returning to the atmosphere after a launch.

Rocket Lab, the leading company in the construction and launch of small rockets, recently took what the company describes as a “major step forward” in its plan to reuse its rocket boosters.

The company successfully conducted a “flight recovery test”, in which it used a grab under a helicopter to hang a parachute that was carrying a device imitating its Electron rocket propeller. Rocket Lab, which has operations and facilities in New Zealand and the United States, said the test took place before New Zealand ordered on-site shelter.

It’s a critical development in Rocket Lab’s plan to reuse its rockets for future missions. Rocket Lab has already successfully delivered two rocket boosters after its most recent launches, bringing them up through the intense re-entry of the Earth’s atmosphere. If its reuse plans are successful, Rocket Lab would join SpaceX as the only private company to return and recover an orbital-class rocket propellant.

Beck’s company, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, wants to recover the boosters so they can be launched more often while lowering the cost of materials for each mission. But Rocket Lab’s approach to retrieving its boosters is significantly different from that of SpaceX, which uses the boosters’ engines to slow it down when re-entry and add wide legs to land on large concrete slabs.

Rocket Lab, instead, is testing a technology that Beck calls an “aerothermal decelerator” – essentially using the atmosphere to slow the rocket. After reaching space, the Rocket Lab’s on-board computer guides the booster through the start of the school year. After that, a parachute will deploy from the top of the booster to slow it down and possibly allow the company to fly it from the sky with a helicopter.

The recent drop test “was a logistical nightmare,” CEO Peter Beck told CNBC.

“We had two large ships, a rescue boat and three helicopters. So it was a flotilla of ships going out to the middle of the ocean to do that, “said Beck.

Here’s how the test worked.

Two Rocket Lab helicopters flew over the ocean

One helicopter was carrying a rocket test dummy and the other had a large hook dragging underneath

The test device fell and its parachute was deployed

The helicopter with the chased hook

And I hung it the first time

With the rocket test dummy towed, the helicopter brought it back to shore

Beck said the helicopter dropped the tester about 8000 feet above sea level and then caught it about 5000 feet. When Rocket Lab tests it with a real rocket after a launch, the parachute will open about 20,000 feet. Beck explained that this would give the helicopter pilot about 20 minutes to try to hang before the booster reached the ocean. In addition, the company will have the helicopter close to where the recall is expected to descend, so “we shouldn’t have much to do to start the pickup race,” said Beck.

The company did a number of tests before this one, said Beck, who went so well that “we didn’t really feel the need to go out and do another test.”

“The credit goes to the driver,” said Beck. “He was sweating and worked very hard for it, but it seemed very easy. “

The next step in Rocket Lab’s testing process will be to slow a booster down enough to survive the impact with water – which means slowing it down to about 5 miles per hour. The company plans to run the test at a launch later this year.

“We are going very quickly to try to get one because it will give us a clear idea of ​​the amount of work that lies ahead,” said Beck. “Until we get it back, it’s impossible to estimate how much touch-up it will take. “

Managing the coronavirus crisis

Rocket Lab is the leading private company that builds small rockets – its Electron, which costs about $ 7 million per launch, is about one-fifth the size of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The company specializes in launching lots of small spacecraft, which are often the size of a microwave.

But, due to the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic, Rocket Lab announced last month that it would pause its launch schedule and focus on when it could start again.

“You’re talking about my night shifts,” said Beck. “My day team is dedicated to Rocket Lab and my night team is dedicated to COVID-19, because I am spread over two countries. “

Beck noted that the “curve” of coronavirus cases in New Zealand has started to decline, saying that Rocket Lab expects to “resume launch operations in New Zealand very, very soon.” Although he does not know what day it will be, he noted that the New Zealand foreclosure will last another two weeks.

“We are probably in a better place than many others to resume launch and continue launching,” said Beck.

Indeed, the main launch pad for Rocket Lab is on the Mahia peninsula in New Zealand, an isolated part of the island nation. Launches in the United States have been delayed by the crisis and rapidly changing conditions. SpaceX’s launch of the US Space Force’s next GPS III satellite was delayed from late April to June 30 at the earliest.

Rocket Lab has a launch pad at NASA Wallops facilities in Virginia and, before the crisis, its inaugural launch was scheduled for early this year. Although Beck said the Electron rocket was at Wallops and was on the launch pad, he noted that “there are many other external factors that are beyond our control.”

“We have a vehicle out there and it can be on the mat in 48 hours and we are ready to support the nation whenever it is needed,” said Beck.

Rocket Lab last raised capital in November 2018, a $ 140 million round that Beck called “dry powder” both yesterday and today, “for whatever the world could throw at you.”

“To be honest with you, I did not expect a pandemic,” said Beck. “But I’ve been in this game long enough to know that you’re still getting a curved ball.” “

The majority of this funding cycle is still in the Rocket Lab accounts, he noted, “even though we have invested heavily in other areas.”

“Rocket Lab as a company is very strong,” added Beck.

Interplanetary possibilities

Rocket Lab recently won a nearly $ 10 million contract with NASA to launch its “CAPSTONE” mission, which will send a cube satellite into orbit around the moon. And Beck says Rocket Lab can do more than that, thanks to advances in its internal rocket and spacecraft technologies.

“We actually showed that we can not only go to the moon, but we can do almost interplanetary stuff. We can go to Venus, we can go to Mars, ”said Beck.

June 8, 1998 – The center of the orthographic projection is 30 degrees south latitude and 90 degrees longitude. The upper half is dominated by the Tharsis Montes volcanoes, the large shield volcano Alba Patera, the dark Chryse basin and a vast system of canyons, Valles Marineris. In the central part, an important physiographic feature, the Thaumasia plateau, includes a complex set of faults, ridges and ancient volcanoes on a small and large scale. The large, clearly visible Argyre basin, south-east of the Thaumasia plateau, contains a wide range of light-colored plains 800 km in diameter. The permanent southern polar ice cap is located near the bottom.

Stocktrek Images | Stocktrek Images | Getty Images

The company recently announced that it will acquire Canadian company Sinclair Interplanetary, which manufactures components for small satellites. Beck said the acquisition of Sinclair was part of the same line of thinking as when she decided to start building her Photon spacecraft series.

“When we started building the Photon platform, it became really, really obvious how fragile the satellite supply chain is,” said Beck. “We had a goal: someone should be able to come to us with a spacecraft and we should be able to put it into orbit within three months. If you have to wait 12 months for these satellite components, then you can never deliver on that goal. Components are a big hole in the supply chain. “

Essentially, Rocket Lab wanted to ensure a “solid supply chain of very high quality products,” added Beck. The company’s acquisition of Sinclair is pending regulatory approval, which is expected to be completed soon.

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