Rocket Lab USA Inc. announced that it has taken the next step in transforming its Electron rocket into a reusable rocket. It did this by launching an engine pre-flew.
Rocket Lab (Nasdaq RKLB) has said that it has performed extensive qualification and acceptability testing on the 3D printed engine in order to certify it as a re-flight. This included multiple full-mission duration hot fires. The company stated that the engine flown in the "There and Back Again", mission of May 2022 'performed flawlessly and was on par with a Rutherford engine'.
Rocket Lab stated that while the engine was ready for reflight, they plan to launch it in a commercial mission during the third quarter of this year. The company has already constructed the Rutherford powerpacks for the Electron rockets that are scheduled to launch in the second half of the year. This pre-flown motor will then be added to the production line and integrated into a rocket in progress.
Rocket Lab called this planned flight a milestone for its reusability programme, which includes the recovery of hardware from six Electron missions. The latest stage was launched on the 24th of March during a mission called 'The Beat Goes On.'
Rocket Lab's CEO and founder Peter Beck stated that the "Electron" rocket has already been providing frequent and reliable orbital access for over five years. By evolving it into an reusable launch vehicle, we plan to increase our launch cadence at a time where space access is severely restricted globally.
Rocket Lab has developed and tested two recovery methods. The first is a marine recovery, where Electron’s first stage returns under a parachutist for a soft splashdown on the ocean and recovery via boat. The second method is a mid-air recovery, where Electron’s first stage lands in the air and then parachutes back down to Earth.
Rocket Lab's failed first attempt to recover a helicopter in mid-air included a pre-flew engine that was slated for reflight.
Rocket Lab says that extensive analysis has shown that Electron can withstand an ocean splashdown. Engineers expect future complete stages will pass qualification and acceptance tests for re-flighting with minimal refurbishment.
Rocket Lab has announced that it will use marine operations to recover Electron and re-fly the aircraft. The number of Electron missions that are suitable for recovery is expected to increase from 50% to 60% to 70% due to the fewer weather restrictions faced by mid-air capture versus marine recovery.
Rocket Lab will evaluate the possibilities of flying a pre-flew first-stage booster after the launch in the third quarter of this year.