A long exposure photo shows Rocket Labs Electron rocket lifted off on the company's 10th mission.
Sam Toms | Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab launched seven spacecraft early Friday when the small rocket builder completed the main mission, but the mission also came with a significant extra achievement.
After launching from New Zealand, the company successfully returned the Electron rocket booster ̵
There is a critical development in Rocket Lab's plan to capture the booster with a midair helicopter and reuse it for future missions. In addition, if successful, Rocket Lab would join SpaceX as the only private company to return an orbital class rocket amplifier.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck broke down the results of the test in a conversation with CNBC on Friday, explaining how the company got the booster through the atmosphere's dense "wall" during reentry.
"The real challenge in this program has been & # 39; we can get through the wall & # 39 ;, and today we hit the wall and came out the other side in good shape," Beck said. "We knew we had a chance to get it through the wall and all the way down to the water, but with some reuse it is hugely difficult to model."
The Earth's curve seen from a camera on Rocket Lab's booster as it returns from space.
Beck's company, like Elon Musk's SpaceX, wants to restore boosters so that it can be shot more often while reducing material costs for each mission. But Rocket Lab's approach to recovering boosters is especially different from SpaceX, which uses the booster engines to slow it down during reentry and lay wide legs to land on large concrete pads.
Rocket Lab is instead testing a technology Beck calls an "aero thermal decelerator" – essentially using the atmosphere to slow down the rocket. After separating from the upper stage of the Electron rocket, which carried the spacecraft into orbit, Rocket Labs onboard guided the computer booster through reentry, successfully turning it around 180 degrees.
The Rocket Labs Electron rocket booster stands out as its upper stage, with the engine nozzle visible in the foreground, proceeds to orbit.
"We maintained control of the scene and guided it through the narrow corridor with the heat shield and the right direction, the right angle of attack," Beck said. "And not only did we manage to keep telemetry about it all the way to sea impact, we had a tremendous amount of instrumentation on board that said the scene was very healthy when it affected the ocean."
The booster remained stable throughout the intense reentry, slowing to a speed of less than 560 miles per hour.
"We had absolutely no retarders on board; this came in as hot as it could ever come in," Beck said.
The booster then crashed into the ocean and disintegrated, a move that Rocket Lab planned for the Reentry process to be successful.
"We had the team in a plane out in the middle of the Pacific that circled with a whole lot of telemetry on board," Beck said. "The team is streaming over the data now to see what was in good shape and what was not, but the preliminary results show that the scene was remarkably healthy."
Next time Rocket Lab's recovery attempt will add a parachute, which will distribute as the booster reents the atmosphere. The company then plans to use a helicopter to talk the parachute in midair, to return the booster to a soft landing on a Rocket Lab boat.
"What we can say categorically from today's flight is that reusability for Electron is viable and we're pretty sure it's going to happen," Beck said.
Rocket Lab is the leading private company that builds small rockets – Electron is about a fifth the size of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The company specializes in launching parties with small spacecraft, often the size of a microwave oven.
Including the seven satellites from customers Alba Orbital and ALE on this 10th mission, Rocket Lab has successfully put 47 small satellites into orbit.
A launch on Electron goes for around $ 6.5 million to $ 7 million per rocket. The company is headquartered in California, with start-up facilities in New Zealand and Virginia. It produces an Elektron rocket about every 20 days, with launches almost once a month. But Rocket Lab wants to speed up production, and aims to produce a rocket every two weeks by the end of 2020.
The company aims to launch its 11th mission in the first weeks of next year.
"The next flight is a repeat of this flight … it did such a great job on the first that we fly the second one exactly the same and collect more data," Beck said. "We will try to get a parachute and decelerator on this thing as soon as we can."
Rocket Lab's webcast of Friday's flight featured some live video from the booster just before it started again. While Beck explained that the company turned off the camera for this test to get as much data as possible, Rocket Lab will likely show more photos on its next flight.
"Now that we have a lot more confidence in the data, we probably will keep the videotapes a little longer," Beck said.