A long exposure photo shows Rocket Lab's Electron rocket lifting off on the company's 10th mission.
Sam Toms | Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab launched seven spacecraft early Friday morning as the builder of small rockets completed another mission, but one launch came with a significant achievement.
After launching from the company's facility in New Zealand, it successfully returned the Electron rocket's booster – the lower portion and most expensive part of the rocket – through the Earth's atmosphere. By navigating the booster through reentry, Rocket Lab is one step closer to becoming one of the few in the world able to recover a rocket booster.
It's a critical development in Rocket Lab's plan to catch the booster with a helicopter in midair and reuse it for future missions. Additionally, if successful, Rocket Lab would join SpaceX as the only private company to return an orbital-class rocket booster.
"Our first guided stage re-entry was a complete success," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. "The stage made it through the harsh re-entry environment intact, which is an outstanding result for a first test of our recovery systems."
The curve of the Earth seen from a camera on Rocket Lab's booster as it returns from space.
Beck's company, much like 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, as the latter company has become famous for using the boosters' engines to slow it down during reentry and adding 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 separating from the upper stage of the Electron rocket, which carried the spacecraft into orbit, Rocket Lab's onboard computer guided the booster through re-entry, successfully flipping it around 180 degrees.
The booster of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket separates as its upper stage, with its engine nozzle visible in the foreground, continues on to orbit.
The booster remained stable through the intense reentry process, Rocket Lab said, slowing to a speed of less than 560 miles per hour. The booster then smashed into the ocean and disintegrated, a move that Rocket Lab planned if the reentry process was successful.
Next up for Rocket Lab's recovery attempts will be adding parachutes, which will deploy once the booster reenters the atmosphere. The company then plans to use a helicopter to snag the parachute in midair, to carry the booster back to a soft landing on a Rocket Lab boat.
Rocket Lab is the leading private company that builds small rockets, as its Electron 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.
Including the seven satellites from customers Alba Orbital and ALE on this 10th mission, Rocket Lab has successfully put 47 small satellites into orbit.
A launch on Electron goes for about $6.5 million to $7 million per rocket. The company has its headquarters in California, with launch facilities in New Zealand and Virginia. It produces one Electron rocket about every 20 days, with launches nearly once a month. But Rocket Lab is looking to accelerate production, aiming to produce a rocket every other week by the end of 2020.
The company is aiming to launch its 11th mission in about a month, saying the "next mission will take place within the first weeks of 2020."