Rocket Lab launched a flight-proven engine booster rocket for the first time today (August 23), taking a major step toward rocket reusability.
An Electron rocket carrying a Capella Space Earth Observation Radar satellite in San Francisco lifted off from the Rocket Lab site in New Zealand today at 7:45 p.m. EDT (2345 GMT; 11:45 a.m. Aug. 24 NZT).
It was one of the nine Rutherford engines in the first stage of the veteran space engine Electron, and it launched on a mission last May. It was the first time Electron had flown with a used engine, but it won’t be the last, if all goes according to Rocket Lab’s plan.
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“This mission is a huge step toward reusable electron rockets,” said Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. Today’s preflight statement.
“The engines we bring back from previous recovery missions perform exceptionally well through rehabilitation and acceptance tests, so we’re excited to send one on its second flight into space as one of the final steps before returning the entire first stage.” he added.
Rocket Lab’s recovery strategy differs from that used by SpaceX with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launchers. The 59-foot (18-meter) Electron is too small to perform an automated landing after launch—it can’t carry enough fuel to have the required amount left for such maneuvers—so Rocket Lab directs its boosters into soft parachutes. With the help of ocean spray.
The company had seven such rocket reruns under its belt already, and today’s assignment, called We Love the Nightlife, made it to eight. The Electron’s main chute deployed about 8.5 minutes after liftoff, and the booster hit the water about 11 minutes later.
As with previous recoveries, Rocket Lab will fish the missile out of the sea and bring it back to shore for testing, analysis, refurbishment, and possibly re-launch.
Missile recovery was a secondary objective of today’s flight, of course. The main goal was to safely send one of Capella Space’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites into orbit.
The spacecraft deployed into a 400-mile (640-kilometer) circular orbit about 57.5 minutes after launch as planned. Rocket Lab confirmed it today. After a period of inspection, the satellite will begin to study the Earth’s surface in radar light.
“Capella’s advanced radar technology penetrates all weather conditions – clouds, fog, smoke and rain – and captures clear images day and night, providing unparalleled visibility of what is happening anywhere in the world at any given moment,” Rocket Lab wrote in the mission press. Several, which you can find here.
“We Love the Nightlife” was Rocket Lab’s third mission for Capella Space and its 40th launch overall. The flight was scheduled to launch in late July, but bad weather pushed it to early August. Then the company postponed take-off to today because of “Engine misbehavingon the electron.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:20 PM ET with news of the successful satellite deployment.