Rocket Lab, the leading company building and launching small rockets, recently took what the company describes as a "major step forward" in its plan to reuse its rocket boosters.
The company successfully conducted "a mid-air recovery test," in which it used a grappling hook under a helicopter to snag a parachute that carried a device mimicking its Electron rocket booster. Rocket Lab, which has operations and facilities in both New Zealand and the United States, said the test happened before New Zealand issued shelter-in-place orders.
It's a critical development in Rocket Lab's plan to reuse its rockets for future missions. Already, Rocket Lab has successfully returned two rocket boosters after its most recent launches, navigating them back through the intense reentry of the Earth's atmosphere. If its reuse plans succeed, Rocket Lab would join SpaceX as the only private company to return and recover an orbital-class rocket booster.
Beck's company, much like Elon Musk's SpaceX, wants to recover the boosters so it can launch more often while simultaneously decreasing the material cost of each mission. But Rocket Lab's approach to recovering its boosters is notably different than SpaceX's, which uses the boosters' engines to slow it down during reentry and add wide legs to land on large concrete pads.
Rocket Lab, instead, is testing a technology Beck calls an "aero thermal decelerator" — essentially using the atmosphere to slow down the rocket. After reaching space, Rocket Lab's onboard computer guides the booster through reentry. After that, a parachute will deploy from the top of the booster to slow it down and, eventually, allow the company to pluck it from the sky with a helicopter.
The recent drop test "was a logistical nightmare," CEO Peter Beck told CNBC.
"We had two large vessels, a recovery boat and three helicopters. So it was it was quite a flotilla of vessels that were going out in to the middle of the ocean to do this," Beck said.
Here's how the test worked.
Beck said the helicopter dropped the test device at about 8,000 feet altitude and then caught it about 5,000 feet. When Rocket Lab tries it with a real rocket after a launch the parachute will open at about 20,000 feet. Beck explained that will give the helicopter pilot about 20 minutes to try to snag it before the booster hits the ocean. Additionally, the company will have the helicopter near where the booster is expected to come back down, so "we shouldn't have far to go to start the pickup run," Beck said.
The company conducted a number of tests before this one, Beck said, which went so well that "we didn't really feel the need to go out and conduct another test."
"All credit goes to the pilot," Beck said. "He was sweating and worked really hard for that but made it look really easy."
Next up in Rocket Lab's testing process will be slowing a booster down enough that it survives impact with the water – which means slowing it down to a speed of about 5 miles per hour. The company plans to conduct that test during a launch later this year.
"We're moving very quickly though to try and recover one because that will give us a clear view of how much work is in front of us," Beck said. "Until we get it back it's impossible to estimate the amount of rework it's going to take."
Rocket Lab is the leading private company that builds small rockets — its Electron, which goes for about $7 million per launch, is about a fifth the size of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The company specializes in launching batches of small spacecraft, which are often about the size of a microwave oven.
But, due to the evolving coronavirus pandemic, Rocket Lab announced last month it would pause its launch schedule and focus on being ready for when it can launch again.
"You're talking about my night shifts," Beck said. "My day shift is devoted to Rocket Lab and my night shift is devoted to COVID-19, as I'm spread across two countries."
Beck noted that "the curve" of coronavirus cases in New Zealand has begun to decline, saying that Rocket Lab expects to "resume launch operations in New Zealand very, very soon." While he's not sure what day that will be, he noted that New Zealand's lock down will last for another two weeks.
"We're probably in a better place than many others to resume launch and continue to launch," Beck said.
That's because Rocket Lab's main launchpad is on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, a remote part of the island nation. U.S. based launches have been delayed by the crisis and the rapidly evolving situation. The SpaceX launch of the U.S. Space Force's next GPS III satellite was delayed from late April to no earlier than June 30.
Rocket Lab has a launchpad at NASA's Wallops facility in Virginia and, before the crisis, its inaugural launch was expected at the beginning of this year. Although Beck said the Electron rocket is at Wallops and has been on the launchpad, he noted that "there are a lot of other external factors that are out of our control."
"We've got a vehicle there and it can be on the pad in 48 hours and we're ready to support the nation whenever it requires," Beck said.
Rocket Lab last raised capital in November 2018, a $140 million round that Beck called "dry powder" both then and now, "for whatever the world may throw at you."
"To be honest with you, I wasn't expecting a pandemic," Beck said. "But I've been in this game long enough to know that you always get thrown a curve ball."
The majority of that funding round is still in Rocket Lab's accounts, he noted, "even though we've been investing heavily in other areas."
"Rocket Lab as a business is very solid," Beck added.
Rocket Lab recently won a nearly $10 million NASA contract to launch its "CAPSTONE" mission, which will send a cube satellite into orbit around the moon. And Beck says Rocket Lab can do even more than that, thanks to advancements of its in-house rocket and spacecraft technologies.
"We actually showed that we could not only get to the moon, but we can do near-interplanetary stuff. We can go to Venus, we can go to Mars," Beck said.
The company recently announced it will acquire Canadian company Sinclair Interplanetary, which makes the components of small satellites. Beck explained that the Sinclair acquisition came in the same line of thinking as when it decided to begin building its Photon series of spacecraft.
"When we started building the Photon platform, it became really, really obvious how fragile the satellite supply chain is," Beck said. "We had a goal: Someone should be able to come to us with a spacecraft and we should be able to get that on orbit within three months. If you've got to wait 12 months for those satellite components, then you can never deliver on that goal. The components are big hole in the supply chain."
In essence, Rocket Lab wanted to insure a robust "supply chain of really high quality products," Beck added. The company's acquisition of Sinclair is pending regulatory approval, which Beck said should be completed shortly.
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