Rocket Lab founder, New Zealander Peter Beck, said the company has done substantial work on making its rockets recoverable and reusable, but don’t expect them to get it right on the first attempt.
Rocket Lab has now successfully launched eight of its Electron rockets from its New Zealand launch facility, with recovery possibly to be attempted after the next two launches. Launch nine is scheduled for later this month.
Beck said there would be some significant changes to the vehicle for launch 10.
“It's pretty difficult to put a time frame on it because we'll fly flight 10 and we'll learn a lot and we'll model that ... and we'll make changes and then we'll fly flight 11 and we'll probably do the same again,” he said in an interview with website Space.com.
“So, really, it's really hard to predict when we’re going to have the first fully fledged recovery attempt.”
Since much of the cost of a launch is in single use components, Rocket Lab is aiming to recover the Electron rocket first stage, which would initially be slowed by ballute – a high altitude braking device – then by parachute, then snatched during descent by a helicopter skyhook.
Recovering the Electron first stage would also allow more frequent launches.
In order to gather data, Rock Lab has flown instrument package on its last two launched.
Beck said this was an immensely challenging task.
“But we think we've done enough research to conclude that it's feasible,” he said.
“We've been saying don't expect us to capture it on the first go. It's going to be a number of attempts before we manage to get one through the atmosphere.”
Rocket Lab also announced earlier this year it planned to develop its own satellite bus called Photon. The bus is the component that provides power, communications and station keeping for the actual payload and can be common across a range of different types of satellite.
Beck said one of the barriers to space was cost of launch, which Rocket Lab was on a path to really solving. The other problem for space start-ups is the cost of developing a satellite, including its bus.
He said the bus absorbed a tremendous amount of capital and time, and if it failed the actual payload would never get an opportunity to work.
“It just seems to me that that part of the equation should be commodified. No start-up company, no government should ever have to worry when they put their satellite up there will it work, will it turn on, will it generate power, will it communicate,” Beck said.
“Those sorts of things should just be a fundamental yes, and everybody should be worrying about their sensor, their payload, how they're going to make money.”
Beck said Photon would remove all those constraints.
“So, anybody can come now with their payload or their concept and integrate it onto a Photon satellite bus, which is also part of the Electron launch vehicle, and launch and the satellite piece is just taken care of completely,” he said.
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