4 mins read 20 Nov 2020

Rocket Lab attempting first reusability test for Electron

Rocket Lab pushes for its sixteenth launch using the Electron booster – with their first attempt at testing recovery of the first stage for reusability. Riding aboard is an interesting set of payloads.

Previous launch from Rocket Lab on the ‘Make it Rain’ mission. Credit: Simon Moffatt and Sam Toms.

New Zealand’s space launch company, Rocket Lab, is set to attempt a historic mission today – launching an array of satellites into orbit, in addition to the company’s first attempt at recovering a reusable component of its rocket.

Like previous missions, Rocket Lab will be using the Electron vehicle to deliver multiple payloads into orbit from the beautiful Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, before the lower stage of the rocket returns to Earth by parachute for a soft oceanic landing, where it can be recovered and used again in future missions.

The aim of this major milestone in this recovery mission is to conduct further analysis on the returned component which will then inform future return missions, of which Rocket Lab as ambitious plans for – including recovering the lower stages of boosters mid-air using helicopters to snag rocket stages as they safely parachute back down to Earth.

The ‘Return to Sender’ mission profile. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Across the planet, commercial and state actors have started migrating their rocket launch models to include reusable components, thus lowering the overhead costs of each mission – which in turn has allowed the CubeSat market to take off – both literally and figuratively.

This disruption in processes, operations and funding has allowed the accessibility to space to now be within reach of larger market of vendors, such as researchers, AgriTech suppliers and Earth Observation services.

Electron ready to go for Return to Sender mission. Credit: Rocket Lab.

The current mission, known as Return to Sender is Rocket Lab’s sixteenth launch using the Electron Booster, since first starting in May 2017 – a run that has proven extremely successful with only two historical failures (the very first test and an additional launch in July 2020).  Over this period Electron has successfully been delivering payloads for NASA, the NRO, PlanetLabs, DARPA and the US Airforce into Low-Earth Orbit.

The Te Waka Āmiorangi Aotearoa APSS-1 CubeSat developed by students and heading to space aboard the Return to Sender mission. Credit: Auckland in Space.

One of the payloads aboard Electron is Auckland Universities first student-built satellite “Te Waka Āmiorangi Aotearoa APSS-1” – a 1 unit CubeSat that has been developed over the last three-and-a-half years, and designed to monitor electrical activity in Earth’s upper atmosphere to test if observed ionospheric disturbances can predict earthquakes, as well as providing science knowledge about how solar winds and geophysical events affect Earth’s atmosphere.

To ensure that the satellite was in its best condition prior to launching, the team from Auckland Programme for Space Systems tested their payloads at The Australian National University’s National Space Test Facility, which simulates the conditions of launch and extremes of space. Tests of this nature help reduce risks prior to launching assets into space.

Nose cone encapsulation for the Return to Sender mission. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Other payloads that Return to Sender will carry include the DRAGRACER mission – a space debris management test by the TriSept Corporation, which will test tethering technology to accelerate unused spacecraft into re-entry orbits, helping clean up the growing problem of space junk

In addition, BRO-2 and BRO-3 – the next edition of satellites from French company UNseenlabs, which eventually plans to orbit 20 of these assets which are dedicated to maritime surveillance.

The SpaceBees CubeSats that are being launched on the Return to Sender mission. Credit: Rocket Lab.

The Spacebees are also being launched on this machine and are described as a swarm of 24 small satellite units (part of a larger constellation of 150 small satellites when completed), which provide communication capabilities to remote regions of the world using IoT devices.

And lastly, the quirky Gnome Chompski – which is a Gnome shaped mass simulator, which pats homage to the innovation and creativity of gamers worldwide, that also doubles as a test that qualifies a new method of 3D printing which can hopefully be utilised for future missions.

Gnome Chompski who will ride aboard the Return to Sender mission. Credit: Rocket Lab.

Thousands of people are expected to watch the launch online with keen interest on Rocket Lab’s recovery, but also as a form of charity. Valve’s Gabe Newell will be donating one dollar to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Starship children’s hospital for every person who watches the launch online (link below).


Watch the launch live here