Elon Musk Sends His Congratulations As Long Beach HQ'd Firm -- Rocket Lab -- Details Its Success In Simultaneously Orbiting Thirty Satellites AND Using Parachute System To Recover Its First Stage Launch Rocket
|(November 25, 2020, 10:25 a.m.) -- Long Beach headquartered Rocket Lab's CEO Peter Beck told a 51 minute Zoomed Nov. 23 news conferernce from New Zealand that the November 19 mission -- which simultaneously launched thirty satellites AND recovered the rocket's first stage via a parachute-slowed system with an ocean splashdown -- was a "complete success."
Mr. Beck said the mission accomplished more than the firm set out to accomplish, provided data that will guide changes to the rocket's heat shield and showed the parachute-deployed system "is a feasible approach [recovery] approach to make a recoverable launch vehicle. (LBREPORT.com coverage of the Nov. 19 Rocket Lab mission click here.)
Others in the emerging space commerce field paid attention. In a public online acknowledgement of Rocket Lab's accomplishment, Elon Musk (whose Space X uses a rocket engine-landing system for rocket recovery) sent a one-word Facebook response: "Congratulations" he said.
Speaking from New Zealand (where one of Rocket Lab's two launch facilities and its production complex are located), Mr. Beck said his firm will now undertake an extensive inspection process of the rocket's components to requalify them for a future flight. He said the firm plans to dissect the stage, pull components off and start the process of requalifying pieces and ultimately get them ready to refly.
The Nov. 19 launch by Rocket Lab -- whose coroporate headquarters are at 3881 McGowen St. in ELBís Douglas Park -- successfully deployed 30 satellites into unique orbits using the firm's "Electron" launch vehicle. It says the satellites will enable internet from space, test new methods of deorbiting space debris, and enable research into predicting earthquakes.
Rocket Lab, founded in 2006 with its first orbital launch in Jan. 2018, specializes in small satellite launches. It sent its "Electron" rocket into space from New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula lifting off on Nov. 19 at 7:20 p.m. PST.
Electron rocket lift-off. Image source: Rocket Lab
It then displayed photos on Facebook showing the results of its parachute-deployed rocket recovery from its splash-down location in the Pacific. Rocket Labs called its mission "Return to Sender.í
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Mr. Beck said Rocket Lab plans its next recovery mission in 2021 and it will be largely the same but "we will be improving some thermal protection systems. We knew that the thermal protection systems on the vehicle was not perfect because we didn't have the data on what it should or shouldn't be...Now that we have the stage we can have a really good assessment of the thermal protection and what obviously worked well and not surpisingly some areas took a real lashing... "
He said the "The big takeaway from this is that we're realy confident now that Electron can becoeme a resuable launch vehicle which prior to this test, we kind of thought it would but now we are actually, we can pull this off."
The firm says the launch deployed satellites for TriSept, Swam Technologies, Unseenlabs, and the Auckland Programme for Space Systems at The University of Auckland It brngs the total number of satellites launched by Rocket Lab to 95.
In the press briefing, Mr. Beck candidly acknowledged a lot of heat shield panels got blown out but noted "the heat shield did better than I thought because...it was never diesgned for the kind of dynamic pressure and heat flux that we were throwing at it...The next piece of work for us is on the heat shield and reinforcing it, and redesigning it to carry the loads, but the good news now is that now we actually know the loads [and can redesign the heat shield accordingly.]"
How many times does Rocket Labs expect to refly Elecron's 1st stage? "With respect to data informing new vehicle configurations, the way we've been approaching this that we acknowledge that this is kind of uncharted territory... and the way to do this is actually iterative...I think it'll be one of those things I'm predicting that we'll get to the end of it and we'll build it and it will look incredibly obvious and we'll go well 'why didn't we just do this in the first place?' but it will still be a lot of iteration along the way," Mr. Beck said. He added, "Ask me that question in a couple of years time and I think I can draw you what a recovery small rocket should look like on a napkin."
"Our intention is to take that whole stage, charge it back up and fly it again," Mr. Beck continued. "That's the design goal that we're driving to is take it out of the sky, put back on the pad, charge it up and fly again...That's ultimately what we're trying to drive to. It's just this particular flight we that we didn't have all the heat shielding that's going to be required in the future [for the engine.]"
In s release, the firm said that about two and a half minutes after lift-off at an altitude of roughly 80 km, "Electronís first and second stages separated per standard mission procedure. Once the engines shut down on Electronís first stage, a reaction control system re-oriented the stage 180-degrees to place it on an ideal angle for re-entry, enabling it to survive the incredible heat and pressure known as "The Wall" during its descent back to Earth. A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometres of descent. The stage splashed down as planned. Rocket Labís recovery team will transport the stage back to Rocket Labís production complex, where engineers will inspect the stage to gather data that will inform future recovery missions."
A reporter noted comparisons between Rocket Lab's [parachute reuse] system and Elon Musk's Space X Falcon 9 [uses the rocket engines to land back on Earth] and noted that Mr. Musk had personally congratulated Mr. Beck and Rocket Lab on its success. Asked for his reaction to Mr. Musk's "across the aisle" congratulations, Mr. Beck noted while the two rocket recovery systems are quite different "the objective here is exactly the same"...and said it's great to be able to return launch vehicles to Earth.
The ELB HQ'd firm is currently counting down to an interim mission (14-day launch window opens December 12 UTC from Rocket Lab's New Zealand launch complex) aiming for a targeted 500 km circular low Earth orbit for the Japanese company Synspective!. The mission is titled "The Owlís Night Begins" to recognize Synspectiveís StriX synthetic aperture radar (SAR) being developed to image millimeter-level changes to the Earthís surface from space.
Rocket Lab operates launch sites in Mahia, New Zealand and Wallops Island, Virginia. On its Facebook page, Rovket Lab says its mission is to remove the barriers to commercial space. "[The firm] was founded on the belief that small payloads require dedicated small launch vehicles and the flexibility not currently offered by traditional rocket systems."
Meanwhile, a few blocks south of Rocket Lab's ELB corporate headquaters, Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit -- based at 4022 Conant St. -- also prepares satellites for launch. Stating on its website that it's "on a mission to open space for everyone," Virgin Orbit says "when your satellite arrives at our payload processing facility in Long Beach, CA, itíll feel right at home in our strictly regulated cleanroom. We monitor particle counts, humidity and temperature to ensure our cleanroom operates at ISO 8 Cleanliness standards." The satellite is then launched from Virgin's "Cosmic Girl" aircraft available from multiple launch locations across the globe.
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