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Rocket Lab is gearing up for its next launch, currently slated for May from its launch facility in New Zealand. The payload for the flight are two satellites to join the BlackSky Earth Observation constellation, but Rocket Lab has a crucial secondary goal for its goal of adding reusability to its Electron launcher: recovering the booster stage afterwards. his return from space.

This is not the first time that Rocket Lab has performed a recall recovery; last December, he fished one out of the sea as a result of his aptly named “Return to Sender” mission. For this flight, dubbed “ Running Out of Toes, ” the goal is roughly the same, but the Electron vehicle has some upgrades and modifications that will help Rocket Lab collect even more data and move towards full reuse. of one of these boosters once. they get it back.

“We were very, very satisfied with the condition of the [first] booster, we came back without any modifications to the thermal protection systems, ”explained Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab, in an interview. “The way we come in with the thruster is obviously engine driven and sends a big shock wave forward. This next flight is the next iteration where we improved the heat shield to be able to actually carry these charges, because we know these charges now.

The first flight provided a lot of valuable data about the actual stresses on the Electron booster during re-entry – information that ground engineers could make educated guesses, but couldn’t really know without a real-world test. Data collected by sensors onboard the rocket during that December flight allowed Rocket Lab to redesign Electron’s heat shield for a “major increase in performance and endurance,” according to Beck.

This second flight will test the effectiveness of these improvements and provide even more data to the Rocket Lab team, which will be used to inform the design of the planned third and final recovery test. This will focus on adjusting the re-entry procedure so that the Electron booster loses even more speed as it re-enters the atmosphere, making Rocket Lab’s final stages of recovery – a parachute-assisted slowdown and capture. helicopter in flight – more viable.

“There will be another design iteration after that, where we’ll look to rub some more speed through the air for more heat off the stage, to get us to that point where it’s definitely worth bringing the others to.” elements of the helicopter. go and take a step that we feel we could go and re-fly, ”Beck said.

This third and final start-up test is expected to take place later this year, if all goes as planned. And while Rocket Lab isn’t aiming to relaunch any of the boosters from those three dev tests, Beck told me that some components from the first booster they picked up were put back into this second test vehicle, and the plan is to collect and reuse even more parts for test # 3.

Beck said taking the thruster back to the Rocket Lab factory and cutting it into small pieces was actually the best way for the company’s engineers to learn what happens when re-entry and which parts of the rocket are the ones. most affected.

“There is nothing like putting a scene back in the factory to really understand,” he explained. “You can have all the instrumentation you want, but we brought this scene back here and the first thing we did was cut it out. We cut out any heat affected areas, any areas that are shaded by the flux, and then start doing tensile probing on those to understand the properties of the material. “

All of this work goes towards the end goal of relaunching a salvaged Electron booster – which will be a major achievement not only because it should help Rocket Lab ramp up its launch rate, but also because the vehicle doesn’t. was never designed to be reusable from the start. . I asked Beck if this first flight of a recovered Electron would be a trade mission, or just a test without a customer payload.

“I imagine it would be a trade mission, just because we’re not going to put anything on the table that we don’t really trust anyway,” he said. “I suspect that the first reused vehicles will have a lot of renovation work, because if you look at the only other company that has demonstrated its reusability [SpaceX], it’s been many, many years of learning and understanding. You don’t just grab a pitcher, say it looks good, put it back on the mat and steal again. It is a very iterative process of building confidence and self-confidence. “

While the introduction of reusability into Electron has advantages in itself for this launcher, the process of developing this capability has also been invaluable to Rocket Lab’s efforts to build its next spacecraft, the Neutron Launch System of larger capacity, according to Beck. Neutron is designed to launch and land propulsively, and to include a lot more usability from the get-go.

“Electron was designed to be the most manufacturable launcher in the world – Neutron is designed to be the most reusable launcher,” Beck said. “They are very different paradigms, but exceptionally we now have experience in both. For Neutron, innovation is really about reusability, and there will be some interesting things coming soon, when we reveal a little more about the architecture of the vehicle, it will make very evident how well we are going to make it a reusable launch vehicle. . “

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