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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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Rocket that’s Last of Its Kind Delivers Newest, Most Powerful GPS Satellite to Orbit

United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV medium-class rocket blasted into a hazy morning sky from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station

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Rocket, GPS, Satellite
A United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket lifts off from space launch complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the second Global Positioning System III payload, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, in Cape Canaveral, Florida. VOA

A rocket that’s the last of its kind delivered the newest, most powerful GPS satellite to orbit for the Air Force on Thursday.

United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV medium-class rocket blasted into a hazy morning sky from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was a fitting swan song for the rocket. Company President Tory Bruno tweeted that the liftoff was “hot, straight and normal.”

Two hours later, the satellite separated from the upper stage and the company declared success.

Rocket, GPS, Satellite
A rocket that’s the last of its kind delivered the newest, most powerful GPS satellite to orbit for the Air Force on Thursday. Pixabay

The Delta IV Medium ended its 17-year run with 29 launches. Denver-based United Launch Alliance said it will be replaced by the still-in-development Vulcan rocket. The Delta IV Heavy, meanwhile, will continue to soar.

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The newly launched GPS satellite is the second in a series of next-generation navigation spacecraft. It’s nicknamed Magellan after the 16th-century Portuguese explorer. Lockheed Martin, also based in Colorado, built the satellite. (VOA)