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Rocket Lab Announces Plan to Recover Core Booster of Its Electron Rocket Using Helicopter

Small-satellite launch firm Rocket Lab announced on Tuesday a plan to recover the core booster of its Electron rocket using a helicopter

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Rocket Lab, Electron, Rocket
FILE - Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck poses alongside a Rutherford rocket engine in Auckland, New Zealand, Oct. 20, 2015. VOA

Small-satellite launch firm Rocket Lab announced on Tuesday a plan to recover the core booster of its Electron rocket using a helicopter, a bold cost-saving concept that, if successful, would make it the second company after Elon Musk’s SpaceX to reuse an orbital-class rocket booster.

“Electron is going reusable,” Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said during a presentation in Utah, showing an animation of the rocket sending a payload into a shallow orbit before speeding back through Earth’s atmosphere. “Launch frequency is the absolute key here.”
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The Auckland, New Zealand-based company is one of a growing cadre of launch companies looking to slash the cost of sending shoebox-sized satellites to low Earth orbit, building smaller rockets and reinventing traditional production lines to meet a growing payload demand.

Electron, which has flown seven missions so far, can send up to 496 pounds (225 kg) into space for roughly $7 million.

Rocket Lab, Electron, Rocket
FILE – A SpaceX Falcon heavy rocket lifts off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., June 25, 2019. Pixabay

Medium-class launchers such as Los Angeles-based Relativity Space can send up to 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg) into space for $10 million while Cedar Park, Texas-based firm Firefly can do it for $15 million.

Unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which reignites its engines to land steadily back on Earth “propulsively” after much larger missions costing around $62 million, Rocket Lab’s Electron will deploy a series of parachutes to slow its fall through what Beck called “the wall” – the violently fast and burning hot reentry process the booster endures shooting back through Earth’s atmosphere.

A helicopter will then hook the booster’s parachute in mid-air as it descends over the ocean and tow it back to a boat for recovery, Beck said.

“The grand goal here is, if we can capture the vehicle in wonderful condition, in theory we should be able to put it back on the pad, recharge the batteries up, and go again,” Beck said.

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Some launch companies, such as Boeing-Lockheed venture United Launch Alliance which flies its Atlas V rocket, are skeptical of the economic case for reusing first-stage boosters propulsively, arguing that the fuel spent landing the rocket through the dense atmosphere and back on Earth would be better used to launch heavier payloads.

Beck said propulsive recoveries like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 “don’t scale well” with Electron’s smaller build, anyway. A spokeswoman would not say how much money Rocket Lab expects to save from its foray into hardware reusability, but said “cost reductions could flow from this in time.” (VOA)

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SpaceX Test-Launches Early Prototype of Company’s Mars Rocket Rattling Nerves of People Living Near Texas Site

The prototype, dubbed Starhopper, slowly rose about 500 feet(152m) off its launch pad in Brownsville, Texas

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SpaceX's Mars Starship prototype "Starhopper" hovers over its launchpad during a test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, Aug. 27, 2019. VOA

SpaceX test-launched an early prototype of the company’s Mars rocket on Tuesday, rattling the nerves of people living near the Texas site and clearing another key hurdle in billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s interplanetary ambitions.

The prototype, dubbed Starhopper, slowly rose about 500 feet(152m) off its launch pad in Brownsville, Texas, and propelled itself some 650 feet (198m) eastward onto an adjacent landing platform, completing a seemingly successful low-altitude test of SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engine.

The Raptor is designed to power Musk’s forthcoming heavy-lift Starship rocket, a reusable two-stage booster taller than the Statue of Liberty that is expected to play a central role in Musk’s interplanetary space travel objectives, including missions to Mars.

The prototype “hopper” vehicle, resembling a chrome water tower with four landing legs, was originally slated for its test liftoff on Monday. But a “rather embarrassing” wiring issue with the single Raptor engine halted the countdown less than a second before ignition, Musk, the SpaceX founder and chief executive, said on Twitter.

SpaceX, Mars, Rocket
SpaceX test-launched an early prototype of the company’s Mars rocket on Tuesday, rattling the nerves of people living near the Texas site and clearing another key hurdle. Pixabay

About a dozen people living in the adjacent village of Boca Chica, just over a mile from the test site, had been urged in advance by local authorities to vacate their homes as a precaution at the sound of police sirens that blared minutes before launch.

“It almost looked like a cartoon or something,” nearby resident Cheryl Stevens told Reuters just after Starhopper’s flight. “After all the buildup, it was kind of nice to actually see it happen.”

The notices, circulated by sheriff’s deputies three days in advance, warned of a possible “overpressure event” that could shatter windows and endanger anyone remaining inside their homes in the event of an explosive malfunction.

Maria Pointer, another resident, set up cameras and invited photographers to her home. She said excitement surrounding the launch reminded her of “feeling like you’re going on a Ferris wheel.”

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Other residents bemoaned SpaceX’s presence on the Texas coast, frustrated with road closures and confusing public notices worrisome to those unaccustomed to the trials of spaceflight experimentation.

“It’s kind of like a double-edged sword,” said resident Terry Heaton, adding that access to the nearby beach was blocked off every time SpaceX attempted an engine test.

The next step for Raptor will be to carry out additional ground-based firings of the engine bolted to a stationary test stand, Musk said. (VOA)