The video of the launch shows a boat with a large net attached to it floating on a dimly lit ocean surface.
The fairing drops gracefully down to earth and lands comfortably in the net.
Following the breaking away of the fairing once it reaches space, thrusters and a guidance system guide the pieces back to Earth.
Parachutes are then deployed to slow the descent.
The boat carrying a gigantic net, known as Ms Tree, breaks the fairing’s fall.
The idea behind the catching process is that it is more cost beneficial to reuse nose cones rather than simply let them fall away.
Russian space officials have since shifted from previously dismissing the financial benefits of a reusable rocket case to developing their own unique design bureau specifically for building reusable launch vehicles.
European scientists also rejected reusable rockets but are now building their own Falcon 9-like rocket.
The next Japanese rocket, following its new H3 booster, is likely to be reusable and China is scrambling to develop its own model similar to SpaceX.
Tweeting early on Sunday night, SpaceX boss Elon Musk posted a video of SpaceX’s net-equipped ship M. Tree perfectly positioning itself below the …
After a number of delays due to hardware issues as well as bad weather, SpaceX finally managed to send the AMOS-17 communications satellite into Earth orbit last night. The mission went well, with the SpaceX Falcon 9 completing its third mission, but due to the nature of this particular launch, it wasn’t possible for the company to recover its rocket stage a third time.
However, that didn’t stop SpaceX from recovering another valuable piece of its high-tech hardware. The nosecone fairing is something that the company has been trying to catch and reuse for some time, and it finally snagged one for the first time back in late June. Now, SpaceX has done it again, and we have video of the catch to prove it.
Tweeting early on Sunday night, SpaceX boss Elon Musk posted a video of SpaceX’s net-equipped ship M. Tree perfectly positioning itself below the slowly-descending nosecone, allowing it to gently fall into its huge net:
SpaceX has spent many months trying to perfect the art of catching its rocket fairings, and it’s had no shortage of problems along the way. The awkward shape of the nosecone halves makes it hard to predict their path, and many failures shaped the design of the chute system that the fairings are now equipped with.
SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology has proven itself already, with the company sending many of the first stages of its Falcon 9s into space multiple times. Doing so can dramatically shorten the turnaround time between launches while also allowing the company to offer its services at a lower cost.
Catching and reusing its nosecones isn’t as big of a deal, but it can still help the company’s business model and potentially lower costs even further, but only if SpaceX can make a habit of catching them without issue.
During the interview, we also discussed SpaceX’s recent announcement that it was entering the smallsat launch market with dedicated rideshare …
On Tuesday, the US-based company Rocket Lab announced that it had begun to explore the possibility of reusing its smallsat launch vehicle, Electron. This represented a change of heart for the company, whose chief executive, Peter Beck, had previously dismissed the possibility of re-using the Electron booster.
To understand what led to this decision, Ars spoke with Beck at length on Wednesday. During the interview, we also discussed SpaceX’s recent announcement that it was entering the smallsat launch market with dedicated rideshare missions on its Falcon 9 rocket. Because the whole interview may be of interest to space aficionados, we’re sharing all of it.
Ars Technica: So, after all this time, how did you come to this decision to embrace rocket reusability?
Peter Beck: There’s nothing like actually flying and gathering data. The Electron vehicle is really heavily instrumented on every flight, with thousands of channels of data. We’re a conservative bunch, and we like to make sure we have lots of margins. We’ve been able to understand what sort of structural margins we have during ascent, and the performance of the vehicle. And in parallel to that, we’ve been ramping up at a hugely aggressive rate. We built a new factory, and we’re continuing to expand and hire at a crazy rate. We’re seeing the production delivery times get smaller, and a stage is rolling out of the factory every 30 days now. But really, we’re just nowhere close to keeping up with the demand from our customers. We need to ramp production even more aggressively.
At the end of last year I started to really look into the possibility of recovery, and the team looked at the data. We formed a recovery team and started hiring early this year, and they’ve been working on it ever since then. And every flight we’ve been instrumenting more and more and understanding more and more. In parallel with that, we’ve been building computational fluid dynamic models and structural analysis models and really validating those models with our data to understand what’s going on. As we understood the problem better and better, we got to the point where we were able to propose solutions that we felt were really quite feasible. At that point, we committed to the project and started upgrades. You’ll see on Flight 10 a few obvious changes on the first stage of Electron, and we felt this was a good opportunity to talk about it given that the jig will be up soon with people starting to notice stuff. We’d be busted pretty quick.
Explain how going for reuse is better than just trying to continue to scale production of the Electron rocket.
We’re trying to do both. Scaling production is not a trivial thing. We need to quadruple production over the next couple of years. You can take any product on this planet—a chair or a consumer product—and say I want a 4x production of that product. And that’s no trivial thing to do. When you have a supply chain as they have in the aerospace industry, which is really quite fragile, and you’re not just asking yourself to scale four times—you’re asking your suppliers to scale four times. Take the engine, for example: even if we wanted to double engine production and order a bunch more printers, those printers are six- or 12-month lead time. Really, we need to be all in. We’re crazy expanding our factories and hiring. But this is an additional step we need to take to increase launch opportunities.
Did the inspiration for this recovery method come from Armadillo, which tried something similar, or some other company?
The idea of mid-air capture has a long history, right back to the Corona missions in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s not new. And it’s funny, if you look at the helicopter capture, most people think that’s the hardest thing to do. But that’s really not hard at all. That’s the bit I’m least worried about being successful. It’s getting it through the atmosphere and down to a sensible speed that is really where the challenge lies. That’s where a lot of the innovation is going to come from in this program. We have some very unique aerodynamic decelerators that we’ll be employing to control the reentry but also to scrub the velocity.
When you say “aerodynamic decelerators,” does that look like a fin or what?
Yeah, I guess that’s kind of the magic of what we’re trying to do. That’s something that we’ve been a little bit less public on, some of the techniques we’re developing for that.
And when do you hope to start trying this out in practice? Is there a target for the first recovery?
Yeah, so the next flight on the pad here is an important one [Flight 8, due to launch later this month]. We have some critical flight instrumentation on that. Flight 10 is a block upgrade, with some visible changes to the booster. Really, after flight 10, there will be new things we’re trying on every flight. But look, this is a very, very difficult thing to do, and I’m reluctant to define a flight number that we’re going to do a full recovery on. It’s a very methodical and iterative approach we’re taking here.
How many times do you hope to reuse a booster?
If we could reuse it once we’ve effectively doubled production. Once would be wonderful. Anything more would be really fantastic.
Did you take inspiration from SpaceX’s success with reusing rockets over the last 2.5 years? Did that maybe push you over the line from, “It would be nice to do this,” to “Hey, we could actually do this”?
There’s no argument that SpaceX has reset the industry standard. What they’ve done has reset everybody’s expectations about what a 21st-century launch vehicle should look like. We always felt that recovery was not achievable on a small launch vehicle because, to do it propulsively, you end up actually building a large launch vehicle because you need so much propellant. Things don’t scale very well. That’s why we used to say publicly we didn’t see a path toward reusability. But we’re taking a very different approach here, one that was required to mesh what we have with a small launch vehicle.
Business must be pretty good if you need all these Electrons.
We’ve brought something to the market that was sorely needed, and we think we’ve hit the sweet spot for payloads. It’s enough that you can rideshare a few CubeSats, but it’s really spectacularly ideal for a dedicated smallsat launch. A 150kg or 200kg spacecraft—the Electron really suits it well. Launch has always been constrained, but we’re helping to ease the problem.
What do you think about the competition? SpaceX is entering the smallsat launch market. There are dozens of companies trying to build vehicles like Electron.
Ultimately, I think an increase in launch opportunities is good for everybody. It stimulates more opportunities, and it enables people to get on orbit more often. The limitation for SpaceX, obviously, is that they’re flying once a year to one particular orbit. Generally, the kind of customer that’s flying on Electron is not looking to rideshare—they’re looking for a dedicated service and all of the massive advantages that gives you. So, you know, from Rocket Lab’s perspective, we don’t see any challenge or impact to our business. It’s a very different customer that will fly on us versus a Falcon 9. But what I would say is there are quite a lot of launch vehicles in the 1,000kg payload range that are under development at the moment, and I think that’s going to be a real challenge for those guys. Basically their model is rideshare, and when you’re going head-to-head with an established player like SpaceX, you know, that has proven flight credibility and opportunities, that will be a real challenge.
How much does having a big head start, like you do, help in this kind of environment?
I lost count, personally, at 114 small-launch vehicle companies. I was told this morning that it was announced at this conference that there are now 130. I think actually flying and delivering payloads with high accuracy—it’s a long way away from someone who is looking to get to their first flight. What we found is that it took the same amount of time, capital, and energy to get to first flight that it did to get to flying once a month. I think flying is everything, and then flying regularly is even more. A customer just has to decide if they’re going to risk flying on a vehicle that has yet to be developed and proven and risk losing a time slot on a vehicle that is already operational.
The most prominent launcher of small carbon composite rockets, Rocket Lab, announced plans on Tuesday to recover the first stage of their Electron …
The most prominent launcher of small carbon composite rockets, Rocket Lab, announced plans on Tuesday to recover the first stage of their Electron rocket and eventually reuse the boosters on future launches.
In short, CEO Peter Beck very humbly stated that he would have to eat his hat during the ~30-minute presentation, owing to the fact that he has vocally and repeatedly stated that Rocket Lab would never attempt to reuse Electron. If Rocket Lab makes it happen, the California and New Zealand-based startup will become the second entity on Earth (public or private) to reuse the boost stage of an orbital-class rocket, following SpaceX’s spectacularly successful program of Falcon 9 (and Heavy) recovery and reuse.
What is Rocket Lab?
Rocket Lab – headquartered in Huntington Beach, California – is unique among launch providers because they specialize in constructing and launching small carbon composite rockets that launch from the gorgeous Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in Mahia, New Zealand. Their production facilities are located in Auckland, New Zealand, where they not only produce their own rockets but also 3D print Rutherford engines, the only orbital-class engine on Earth with an electric turbopump.
Electron’s 1.2-meter (4 ft) diameter body is built out of a super durable, lightweight carbon composite material that relies on custom Rocket Lab-developed coatings and techniques to function as a cryogenic propellant tank. It is powered by 9 liquid kerosene and oxygen (kerolox) Rutherford engines that rely on a unique electric propulsion cycle. The engine is also the only fully 3D-printed orbital-class rocket engine on Earth, with all primary components 3D-printed in-house at Rocket Lab’s Huntington Beach, CA headquarters. Pushed to the limits, a complete Rutherford engine can be printed and assembled in as few as 24 hours.
Currently, Rocket Lab is producing an Electron booster every 20-30 days and flies about once a month out of New Zealand. Since the first operational flight at the end of 2018 Rocket Lab has supported both commercial and government payloads. With a new launch complex (LC-2) coming online in Wallops, Virgina by the end of this year, they look to increase launch frequency, but also widen its market of customers. According to CEO Peter Beck, booster reuse could be a boon for Electron’s launch cadence.
“Electron, but reusable.”
In the world of aerospace, SpaceX is effectively the only private spaceflight company (or entity of any kind) able to launch, land, and reuse orbital-class rockets, although other companies and space agencies have also begun to seriously pursue similar capabilities. Rocket Lab’s announcement certainly brings newfound interest to the private rocket launch community. Reuse of launch vehicle boosters – typically the largest and most expensive portion of any given rocket – is a fundamental multiplier for launch cadence and can theoretically decrease launch costs under the right conditions.
Rocket Lab hopes, more than anything, that recoverability will lead to an increase in their launch frequency and – at a minimum – a doubling of the functional production capacity of the company’s established Electron factory space. This will allow for more innovation and give the company more opportunities to “change the industry and, quite frankly, change the world,” according to founder and CEO Peter Beck.
Unlike like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, propulsive landing is not an option for the small Electron rocket. In fact, cost-effective recovery and reuse of vehicles as small as Electron was believed to be so difficult that Beck long believed (and openly stated) that Rocket Lab would never attempt the feat. Beck claims that in order to land a rocket on its end propulsively – by using engines to slow the booster while it hurdles back to Earth in the way the Falcon 9 booster does – would mean that their small rocket would have to scale up into the medium class of rockets. As Beck stated, “We’re not in the business of building medium-sized launch vehicles. We’re in the business of building small launch vehicles for dedicated customers to get to orbit frequently.”
The main concern that Rocket Lab faces with the daunting task of not using propulsion to land is counteracting the immense amount of energy that the Electron will encounter on its return trip through the atmosphere. In order to return the booster in any sort of reusable condition they will have to decrease the amount of energy that the rocket is encountering which presents in the forms of heat and pressure from ~8 times the speed of sound to around 0.01 times the speed of sound. This decrease also needs to occur in around 70 seconds during re-entry and according to Beck “that’s a really challenging thing to do.” Beck went on further to explain that this really converts into dissipating about 3.5 gigajoules of energy which is enough energy to power ~57,000 homes.
Breaking through “The Wall”
When re-entering the atmosphere the energy that any spacecraft endures creates shockwaves of plasma which must be diverted away in order to protect the integrity of the spacecraft. An example of this can be seen during the re-entry of a SpaceX fairing half. Beck explains that “the plasma around those shockwaves is equal to about half the temperature of the (surface of the) sun” which can reach temperatures as high as 6,000 degrees fahrenheit. It also endures aerodynamic pressure equal to that of three elephants stacked on top of the Electron, according to Beck. His team refers to these challenges as breaking through “The Wall.”Beck explains that they will attempt to solve these problems differently using passive measures and aerodynamic decelerators.
The Wall is something that Beck and his team have been trying to tackle for some time now. Since the Electron began operational flights at the end of 2018 data has been collected to inform the problem solving process. In total Electron has successfully completed 7 flights, with its 8th scheduled to occur within the coming days. Beck explains that flights 6 and 7 featured data collection done through 15,000 different collection channels on board of Electron. The upcoming eighth flight will feature an advanced data recording system nicknamed Brutus. This new recording system will accompany Electron on the descent, but will survive while the booster breaks up as usual. It will then be collected and the data will be evaluated and used to further inform the decision making process for how to best help Electron survive its fall back to Earth.
Catching rockets with helicopters
Once Rocket Lab breaks through The Wall and effectively returns Electron without harm, the booster will need to be collected before splashing down into corrosive saltwater. This was demonstrated to be done via helicopter which according to Beck is “super easy.”
An animation depicts a helicopter leaving a dedicated recovery vessel to capture the Electron booster after it deploys a parafoil and begins gliding. The helicopter will intercept the booster’s parachute using a hook and will then carry the booster back to the recovery vessel, where technicians will carefully secure it.
The entire goal of recovering a booster is to be able to reuse it quickly. Beck explains that since Electron is an “electric turbopump vehicle…in theory, we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up, and go again.”
Although this goal is ambitious, it is one that – if achieved – will significantly impact the launch community in very positive ways. Not only will the option of rapid reusability open up, but so will opportunity for more agencies to engage in the world of satellite deployment. The Electron currently costs anywhere between $6.5 – 7 million per launch to fly. If the production cost of a new booster is removed space becomes attainable for many more customers.