The New Zealand–based company is pioneering a new way of reusing rockets that's distinct from what competitors like SpaceX and Blue Origin have done.
New Zealand company Rocket Lab has hit a key milestone with the successful launch and recovery of its flagship Electron rocket. The mission, the firm’s 16th so far, included a soft parachute landing of the first-stage booster to the ocean for the first time.
The mission: Electron was launched around 1:46 a.m. local time this morning from the company’s launch site on the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island. The mission successfully deployed 30 satellites into low Earth orbit.
Image credit Peter Beck
After two minutes in flight (over 26,000 feet in the air), the first-stage booster separated from the second stage, flipped around 180 degrees, and deployed a parachute that slowed down its descent and allowed for a soft landing in the Pacific Ocean, after which crews successfully ventured out to recover it. It is the first time the company has ever attempted to recover a rocket booster.
Small is better: The company specializes in small payload launches. Its 55-foot-tall Electron rocket is 3D-printed—the only rocket of its kind to be flying at the moment. Electron can’t send very heavy satellites into space (it is too lightweight), but the rise of small satellites has opened up an enormous market that Rocket Lab wants to capitalize on, especially if the company can pull off frequent flights. Rocket Lab plans to start launching from the US at Wallops Island, Virginia, starting next year.
The company also has some deep space ambitions moving forward, including plans to launch a small satellite to Venus in 2023 to study the planet’s atmosphere for possible signs of life.