Rocket Lab has made improvements to the Electron rocket’s first stage to make it more resistant to ocean water, upgrades that will be put to the test at tonight’s launch.
The “Baby Come Back” mission will launch from the company’s launch complex on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula, with a launch window opening at 7:30 PM EST. The mission’s primary objective is to deliver four satellites for NASA, two weather satellites for Spire Global, and a demonstrator for Canadian satellite communications company Telesat.
NASA’s four-cube mission, dubbed Starling, will test the satellites’ ability to autonomously coordinate their movements, or “swarms,” 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 descends under a parachute back to Earth and crashes into the Pacific Ocean. Rocket Lab’s recovery boat will then retrieve the booster from the water and return it to a company production facility for analysis.
Rocket Lab has fished ocean first stages before, but this time the stage will feature new designs to make some key motor and electronic components even more water-resistant. There will be a few other changes throughout the recovery process, said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck, including a lighter parachute and a different method of 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 into orbit. The following year, Rocket Lab announced that it would pursue methods of recovery: via ocean splashing and capturing the first stage in the air with a helicopter.
Rocket Lab twice attempted to catch the booster with a helicopter, with the first attempt ending in partial success after the helicopter briefly captured and then released the booster. The second attempt was called off entirely due to a loss of stage telemetry data; but this turned out to be a positive turn, Beck told investors earlier this year.
“Electron survived an ocean recovery in remarkably good condition, and in many cases its components even pass requalification for flight.”
Encouraged by these results, Rocket Lab appears to have moved completely away from helicopter capture. While Rocket Lab has yet to refly a booster, it plans to reuse a Rutherford engine for a mission later this year.