Rocket Lab announced these plans today at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah. The company says the goal is to increase the frequency of launches of its primary rocket, called the Electron. By saving the vehicles when they return to Earth, Rocket Lab hopes to turn them around and re-launch them again as soon as possible. And that shouldn't be too difficult since some of the vehicle's machinery runs on electric batteries.
"we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up, and go again."
"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, charge the batteries up, and go again," Peter Beck, Rocket Lab's CEO, said during today's announcement.
To recover its rockets, Rocket Lab envisions a complicated system involving ships, helicopters, and parachutes. After launch, the Electron rocket will ascend and break apart in space, with the upper portion of the rocket continuing deeper into orbit and the lower portion falling back to the planet. That bottom portion of the rocket will reenter Earth's atmosphere — hopefully intact — and then deploy a parachute to slow its fall. In the meantime, a helicopter will take off from a ship and attempt to snag the rocket's parachute in the sky. The helicopter will then deposit the rocket back at the ship.
The method shares a few similarities to how SpaceX lands its rockets, but the key difference is that the Electron won't be landing itself on a solid platform with its own engine — what's known as a propulsive landing. Beck says that's because the smaller sized Electron couldn't really accommodate this kind of recovery. "The fundamental reason for that is that takes a small launch vehicle and turns it into a medium-sized launch vehicle," says Beck. "And we're not in the business of building medium-sized launch vehicles. We're in the business of building small launch vehicles."
Over the next few missions, Rocket Lab will add some major updates to the Electron leading up to the first attempted helicopter catch to help make the vehicle recoverable. The first major goal is to get the Electron through the atmosphere in one piece before attempting a helicopter recovery. Beck also says any future Rocket Lab customers should not be concerned about their payloads as changes are made to the rocket. "If you're flying on us, don't anybody panic, because all of these upgrades are completely standalone to Electron," he says. "They don't interface with any of the current flight systems. They're all passive."