Rocket Lab announced April 8 that it would attempt a recovery of an Electron first stage next month. The launch will be Rocket Lab’s 20th mission and the second of a three-mission ocean splashdown recovery series.
The Rocket Lab “Running Out of Toes” mission is slated to be launched in May from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. It will carry two Earth-observation satellites for BlackSky’s global monitoring constellation.
Following a successful deployment, the Electron first stage will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, deploy its parachutes and splash down approximately 650 kilometres downrange from the launch pad.
In addition to validating the results of the launch provider’s first ocean splashdown recovery in November, Running Out of Toes will see the introduction of a major upgrade to Electron.
“The Return to Sender mission proved we could successfully bring Electron back from space,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “Now it’s about validating re-entry data a second time and starting to introduce the advanced systems that will enable us to launch, catch and repeat”
During reentry, an Electron launch vehicle is subject to extreme heat upwards of 2,400 °C. As the vehicle re-enters Earth’s atmosphere engine first, the nine Rutherford engines bear the brunt of this extreme heat.
In order to protect the engines and enable reuse, Rocket Lab has developed an evolved heat shield that will withstand the immense temperatures of reentry. The Electron earmarked for Running Out of Toes will be the first to be equipped with the launch provider’s new heat shield.
Following Running Out of Toes, the third and final ocean splashdown is slated to be completed this year. Rocket Lab will then move on to attempt its first mid-air recovery of a rocket stage using a helicopter.