While the engine is ready for re-flight now, the Electron rockets scheduled for launch in the second quarter are already built with complete Rutherford powerpack assemblies so this pre-flown engine will join the production line to be integrated with an in-progress rocket. The engine is one of several recovered Rutherford engines that collectively have now been through many successful full duration hot fires to support testing and R and D efforts for recovery. The engine joins multiple systems that have been re-flown on Electron including helium press systems.
Re-flying this engine is the latest milestone in an iterative and methodical reusability program that has seen Rocket Lab recover hardware and first stages from six Electron missions to date, with the latest stage recovered on 24 March 2023 following 'The Beat Goes On' mission launched from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab has been iteratively developing and testing two recovery methods in parallel; marine recovery where Electron's first stage returns to Earth under a parachute for a soft ocean splashdown and recovery by boat, and mid-air recovery where Electron's first stage is caught in the air by a specialized helicopter as the stage descends back to Earth under parachute. Extensive analysis of returned stages shows that Electron withstands an ocean splashdown and engineers expect future complete stages to pass qualification and acceptance testing for re-flight with minimal refurbishment.
As a result, Rocket Lab is moving forward with marine operations as the primary method of recovering Electron for re-flight. This is expected to take the number of Electron missions suitable for recovery from around 50% to between 60-70% of missions due to fewer weather constraints faced by marine recovery vs mid-air capture, while also reducing costs associated with helicopter operations. Rocket Lab will assess the opportunities for flying a complete pre-flown first stage booster following the launch of the pre-flown Rutherford engine in the third quarter this year.
"Electron is already an established workhorse rocket that has been delivering frequent and reliable access to orbit for more than five years. By evolving it into a reusable launch vehicle we plan to further increase our already steadily rising launch cadence, offering more launch availability to our customers at a time when space access is severely constrained globally," said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck.
"Reusability for small rockets is immensely challenging as they simply don't have the fuel margins that larger rockets have to enable propulsive landing. Despite this significant technical hurdle, our team has poured relentless innovation into our reusability program and proven it's possible to bring home small rockets and run the engines as good as new. This is a major technical achievement and sets a new standard for small launch vehicles globally.
"We're in this position thanks to our diligent engineers designing robust components and over-qualifying them from the outset of the Electron program to ensure reliability, setting them up well for reuse. We look forward to continuing to rewrite the rules of small launch through reusability, while using the extensive data and experience we're gathering along the way to inform the development of our Neutron rocket which will be an even greater step forward with a fully reusable first stage, interstage and fairing," said Beck.
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