Rocket Lab is taking reuse to new heights.
The Los Angeles-based company is moving ahead with a plan to make the first stage of its Electron rockets reusable. Electron rockets’ booster, after expending its fuel, will descend to earth via parachute, and be picked up mid-air by a helicopter. From there it will be delivered to a ship and returned for reuse. The company will then refurbish the cylinder.
Rocket Lab says it can catch the stage in mid-air because of Electron’s small size. The 2-stage rocket, designed to deliver small satellites into orbit, is about 56 feet high — one-fourth of SpaceX’s most-used Falcon 9. It plans a “stage recovery attempt in the coming year,” the company said.
“Reusing the stage of a small launch vehicle is a complex challenge,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “For a long time we said we wouldn’t pursue reusability.”
- Rocket Lab’s plan is a departure from SpaceX’s method, in which the stage lands on a solid platform. Elon Musk’s SpaceX this week debuted “ride-sharing for satellites.”
- The small satellites market is rapidly shifting from theory to practice as commercial launches become more widely available. Smallsats accounted for 69% of satellite launches last year, and analysts at Euroconsult expect the market to be valued at $42 billion by 2028.
- Rocket Lab closed a $140 million Series E round last year, shortly before its first commercial launch. The company is valued north of $1 billion but faces stiff competition from SpaceX as well as Virgin Orbit — which successfully dropped one of its rockets from a Boeing 747 earlier this summer — and Vector, which expects to perform its first orbital launch later this year.
Karma Takeaway: In a market that has been dominated by household names like Musk and Richard Branson, rival Rocket Lab is proving that the sky is still the limit when it comes to the development and deployment of rocket launchers.