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Rocket Lab’s Successful Booster Recovery Could Lead to Reusable 3D Printed Rockets

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New Zealand space startup Rocket Lab had a very successful year. Early on in March 2020, it was selected by NASA to launch the Pathfinder Mission to the Moon. Then, it acquired satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary, and had its Electron launch vehicle certified by the U.S. space agency. Now, the aerospace manufacturer has launched its Electron rocket to deploy 30 small satellites in orbit while successfully completing its first attempt to recover the rocket’s first stage.

The mission, called “Return to Sender,” saw Rocket Lab complete a successful splashdown and recovery of the Electron’s first stage after it was brought back to Earth under a parachute system after launch. Since its origins, Rocket Lab’s mission has been to “remove the barriers to commercial space by providing frequent launch opportunities to low Earth orbit.” The recovery of a stage is a major milestone, giving the company the opportunity to make Electron a reusable rocket to increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites.

The Electron first stage from Rocket Lab’s 16th launch being hauled onto a recovery ship after reentry and splashdown. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab

On November 20, 2020, just two and a half minutes after lift-off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula, at an altitude of around 80 km, Electron’s first and second stages separated per standard mission procedure. Once the engines shut down on Electron’s first stage, a reaction control system re-oriented the stage 180-degrees to place it on an ideal angle for re-entry, enabling it to survive the incredible heat and pressure known as “The Wall” during its descent back to Earth.

Afterward, a small parachute was deployed to stabilize and decelerate the first stage as it descended before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometers. The stage splashed down as planned and Rocket Lab’s recovery team was able to transport it back to the production complex, where engineers will inspect it to gather data, particularly on the drogue and parachute deployment system, that will help develop better launchers for future recovery missions.

“What the team achieved today in recovering Electron’s first stage is no mean feat. It took a monumental effort from many teams across Rocket Lab, and it’s exciting to see that work pay off in a major step towards making Electron a reusable rocket,” said Rocket Lab Founder and CEO, Peter Beck.

Following this mission, the final phase of Rocket Lab’s recovery program will be to capture Electron’s first stage mid-air by helicopter before the stage is returned to Rocket Lab production complexes for refurbishment and relaunch. If Rocket Lab’s recovery program is successful, Electron would become the first and only reusable orbital-class small launch system in operation.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab

Five years ago, Rocket Lab announced that it had developed the world’s first battery-powered rocket and that the engine would be almost entirely 3D printed. The low-cost launch system came in the form of the Electron, whose Rutherford engine can be 3D printed in 24 hours. The engine’s main prop valves, injectors, pumps, and engine chambers are all 3D printed through electron beam melting, and the engine itself is the first of its kind, using an electric motor instead of gas and creating a more lightweight, efficient machine. The startup, which uses 3D printing for its rockets’ primary components, has now launched its 16th Electron mission and its largest satellite payload to date on a single trip.

The “Return to Sender” mission deployed satellites for TriSept, Swarm Technologies, Unseenlabs, and the Auckland Programme for Space Systems at The University of Auckland. This mission brings the total number of satellites launched by Rocket Lab to 95. Among the payloads deployed, there were satellites designed to test new methods of deorbiting space debris, enable internet from space, and build a maritime surveillance constellation. The mission also saw New Zealand’s first student-built payload deployed to orbit, the APSS-1 satellite which is designed to monitor electrical activity in Earth’s upper atmosphere to test whether ionospheric disturbances might be linked to earthquakes. Rocket Lab sponsored the project by providing the launch at no cost to The University of Auckland.

Joining the satellites for the ride to orbit was an innovative mass simulator shaped like a garden gnome, launched to space to raise money for the Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand. Manufactured by award-winning design studio Weta Workshop, the 150 mm, 3D printed titanium gnome was created as part of a charity event by Gabe Newell, the billionaire co-founder of global game company Valve. As a tribute to the ingenuity of gamers, Newell arranged to send the 3D printed gnome, better known as “Gnome Chompski” as a nod to an achievement in the game Half-Life 2, that sees players carry a gnome from the start of the game before depositing him in a rocketship launched to space.

3D printed Gnome Chompsk at the Rocket Lab facility in New Zealand, three days before being launched to space on Electron to raise funds for Starship children’s hospital. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab

Audiences watching the live-streamed rocket launch on Rocket Lab’s website could see “Gnome Chompski” getting launched to space for real, a spectacle enjoyed by gamers worldwide. Gnome Chompski also served an important R&D function by allowing Rocket Lab to test and qualify novel 3D printing techniques that could be employed for future spacecraft components.

Gnome Chompski’s time in space is limited though, as he remains attached to Electron’s Kick Stage and will de-orbit with it when the stage burns upon its reentry to Earth’s atmosphere. Yet the gnome’s space adventure was very successful since Newel pledged to donate a dollar to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Starship Children’s Hospital for every person who viewed the launch webcast within 24 hours of lift-off. Three days later, his organization, The Heart of Racing (THoR), announced that a total of $286,092 would be donated to the Starship Foundation following the launch.

The gnome from the game Half-Life 2, better known as Gnome Chompski, finally got to ride a rocket to space. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab

Work on Rocket Lab’s stage recovery program began in early 2019, with the “Return to Sender” mission following a series of successful recovery and hardware systems tests over the past 18 months. Electron’s partially 3D printed rocket has begun to show its true potential, and with plans to recover stages from future missions in mid-air, Rocket Lab could be looking at more and more cost-efficient lift-offs in the future and accelerated adoption of 3D printing technology for rocket startups.

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