‘Welcome Back To Earth!’ – Rocket Lab Becomes Second Company After SpaceX To Launch And Land A Rocket

In a major milestone, the New Zealand-based launch company Rocket Lab has successfully recovered an orbital-class rocket after parachuting it back to Earth from near-space – only the second company in history ever to do so.

Yesterday, Thursday, November 20 at 9.20 P.M. Eastern Time, the company’s two-stage Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s launch site on the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island.

Named ‘Return to Sender’, the mission lofted 30 satellites into a sun-synchronous orbit 500 kilometers above the surface of Earth – the most satellites ever flown on an Electron rocket.

Of the satellites launched, 24 were small communications satellites called “SpaceBees” from the California-based company Swarm Technologies. The others included a space junk removal test, a maritime observation satellite, and an earthquake investigation satellite – while a small gnome also made its way to space for charity.

The launch was especially notable, however, for Rocket Lab’s recovery efforts. Shortly after the launch, the first stage of the rocket descended back to Earth under parachute, falling into the ocean where it was then recovered by a waiting ship several hours later.

“Welcome back to Earth Electron!” Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck said on Twitter.

About two and a half minutes after the launch, the first and second stages of the rocket separated at an altitude of 80 kilometers, as the latter continued the journey to space.

The first stage, however, flipped around 180 degrees with onboard thrusters, before beginning a journey back into Earth’s atmosphere – experiencing high heat and temperature as it passed what Rocket Lab called “The Wall”.

This re-entry slowed the rocket to less than Mach 2, when a drogue parachute deployed to slow its descent much more considerably. A few kilometers above Earth, a larger main parachute deployed, decreasing its speed to just 30 kilometers per hour.

The first stage hit the ocean at this speed, with an image from the company (at the top of this article) showing the rocket had clearly survived its incredible journey to and from the edge of space.

This successful launch and landing signals a major moment for Rocket Lab. Last year, they announced that like Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, they intended to make their rockets (which cost about $5 million) reusable, rather than discarding them after every launch.

Unlike SpaceX, however, which conducts propulsive landings on drone ships and the ground, Rocket Lab’s plan was to catch its smaller rockets – a quarter the size of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets – as they fell from space under a parachute.

As the first stage of the Electron falls back to Earth, a parachute would slow its descent. A helicopter would then grab the parachute as the rocket descended, allowing the rocket to be safely taken back to the ground, ready to fly again.

“Our desire is to have as small fleet as possible with the least amount of refurbishment possible,” Beck told reporters earlier this month. “But even one reuse is a huge advantage.”

On this Return to Sender launch a helicopter recovery was not attempted. Instead, the rocket was left to parachute into the ocean, where it was recovered by a ship.

But at some point, possibly next year, that first helicopter recovery will be attempted. First, the company says it wants to perform a few more splashdown tests in the ocean like this one, to check everything is nominal.

If all goes well, however, SpaceX quite soon might not be the only private company that’s able to launch, recover, and re-launch its own rockets.

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