COLORADO SPRINGS — Rocket Lab will use a previously flown engine on an upcoming Electron launch as the company moves closer to reusing the rocket’s entire first stage.
Rocket Lab announced April 19 that it will use a Rutherford engine originally flown on a May 2022 Electron launch, whose booster was recovered, on another Electron launch scheduled for the third quarter of 2023. The launch will mark the first time Rocket Lab has reflown an engine.
“We really wanted to get an engine back on the vehicle quickly,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview during the 38th Space Symposium. “The engine is the hardest thing to recertify for flight.” The third quarter launch is the earliest opportunity to do so since the vehicles planned for launch this quarter have already been assembled.
The company decided to integrate the engine after putting recovered engines through a “huge barrage” of testing to requalify them, he said. “We got to the point where that’s done and we’re very happy with it, so it’s time to put one in production.”
He said nearly every Electron booster now being produced will have some components that have previously flown. That gets the company closer to the long-term goal of refurbishing and reflying an entire booster. Beck, though, declined to estimate when he felt the company would reuse a booster.
Rocket Lab also confirmed that it will no longer attempt mid-air recoveries of the boosters as part of their reusability effort. The company made two such attempts last year but was unable to catch the booster. Instead, the company will recover the boosters from the ocean after splashdown, something Beck said in February the company was leaning towards doing.
“We were always afraid of getting it wet,” he said, which led them to try the helicopter approach. “We were surprised when we pulled the first one out how good it was.” The company has since made what he described as some tweaks to the booster design “to ensure the bits that we don’t want to get wet don’t get wet.”
Beck said Rocket Lab is still planning as many as 15 Electron launches this year. The next two will carry NASA TROPICS cubesats on missions scheduled for the end of April and mid-May. The company recently moved those launches from Virginia to New Zealand.
Rocket Lab is also offering a suborbital version of Electron for hypersonics research. The company announced the Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron (HASTE) vehicle April 17, which will make its first launch later this quarter from Wallops Island, Virginia, for an undisclosed customer.
HASTE is very similar to the Electrons used for orbital launches. The vehicle has some minor changes, such as a modified kick stage and strengthened structures, that allows it to fly suborbital payloads weighing up to 700 kilograms. “But apart from that, it’s a standard Electron,” Beck said.
Rocket Lab sees strong interest in HASTE for hypersonics testing and targets from Defense Department agencies. “We can get exact trajectories at a cost and frequency but also an accuracy that’s never been available before,” he said.
The company has not set a flight rate for HASTE yet. Beck said the company would likely fly a couple “to ease our way in” and then determine how to best meet demand.
“It’s great for the orbital business as well,” he added. “The more vehicles we put through the factory, the cheaper they get.”