Enlarge /. What happened …
Small satellite launcher RocketLab successfully recovered its Electron rocket for the first time after it launched a collection of payloads into orbit. Although this missile itself will not be reused, the company expects it to receive valuable data from sensors that returned to Earth with the vehicle. The satellite launch was also a success, important confirmation after the loss of seven satellites earlier this year.
As an added bonus, the company sent a garden gnome into space for charity.
One small step
The launch came from the company's facility on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula and was uneventful in many ways. The countdown went smoothly, in the second phase the payloads were brought into orbit and the kicker vehicle distributed the satellites to individual orbits. However, with the separation of the second stage, things got a little more complicated. The engineers immediately began calculating the likely location where the first stage would return to Earth – the ocean, to be precise.
The launch, which RocketLab referred to as a "Return to Sender", was the first on which the company attempted to gently shut down and restore the stage. Reusable vehicles were not originally part of RocketLab's plans. As the CEO said during the company's launch webcast, the Electron rocket is much smaller than SpaceX's Falcon and "you don't have the fuel margins of a small launcher" to handle a full-blown landing. However, analysis of the rocket's performance during its initial launches, as well as the sensor readings of the loads placed on the hardware, had indicated that a more limited return plan might be possible.
So the company came up with a plan to use some maneuvering motors to reorient the rocket before it plunged into the atmosphere, slowed down by a small drogue parachute. Once it got deeper into the atmosphere, it deployed a full-size parachute and slowed it down enough for a helicopter to catch it. Return to Sender didn't test the entire process, but it was the first time RocketLab attempted to parachute in to allow for a smooth hosed down and recovery. This would allow the company to get detailed readings of the voltages and temperatures that the electron was exposed to upon re-entry.
While the mission's livestream was paused before the splashdown, the company posted a statement stating that the missile was successfully recovered and posted published photographic evidence on its Twitter feed.
Student projects and a nonprofit gnome
As all of this happened, the mission's payloads were heading for their final five orbits. One is a bit of test hardware, two others are small satellites used to monitor maritime traffic, and another is a collection of 24 small communications satellites. The final payload came from the University of Auckland and is the first New Zealand student project to reach space.
But one last piece of payload doesn't stay in orbit. RocketLab calls it a "mass simulator," but it's a 3D-printed titanium garden gnome named Gnome Chompski, modeled after an item from the Half-Life game series. In the game, the goal was to sneak the gnome on a rocket and send it into space. Allegedly, it was sent to test the performance of 3D printed hardware during the tough start-up phase. In reality, it was an excuse for Valve's Gabe Newell to donate money to charity – one dollar for everyone who saw the livestream the first day. To date, Gnome Chompski's startup has raised over $ 80,000 for the pediatric intensive care unit at Starship Children's Hospital in Auckland.