Rocketlab sent this engine into space and then retrieved it. A new test shows that it still works well

Reusable rocket engines have become all the rage lately, even as NASA’s continually delayed Artemis I mission attempts to launch with non-reusable technology. Realistically, the only way to drastically reduce start-up costs is to reuse engines rather than building them from scratch every time. That’s why any space exploration fan should rejoice that another small start-up, RocketLab, has successfully retested a rocket that flew into space.

SpaceX has already flown several of its Raptor engines into space multiple times, making headlines along the way. But it is not the only company to aspire to reuse its rockets. RocketLab, which makes a much smaller rocket called Electron, has also been considering this step for some time now.

The company made headlines in May when it put on a spectacular show by catching its rocket stage in the air with a helicopter. It’s definitely something SpaceX has never done before — in fact, the company has even had trouble catching its fairings using a net on a boat.

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UT video depicting RocketLab’s capture of its rocket engine which has just undergone a successful retest.

However, RocketLab’s helicopter jack was just the first step in a multi-step process to arrive at a reusable rocket. This first test take eventually forced the helicopter to jettison the rocket into the ocean, where it was picked up by a ship.

Seawater is corrosive and harmful to any metal left there too long. Any space system that touches it will need to be extensively refurbished, so if you’re planning on reusing a rocket, it’s probably best left out of the drink.

Why wouldn’t RocketLab just go and land the rockets on a pad like SpaceX does, then? The simple answer is a size difference. The Electron, which weighs 12 tons fully stacked, can only throw about 300 kg in LEO, compared to about 17,000 pounds that a Falcon 9 can lift, even if it lands on a drone.

Launch of Rocket Lab Electron
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket rises from its New Zealand launch pad.
Credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter

These two rockets are in entirely different classes in terms of power, and this difference in size allows a Falcon 9 to carry enough fuel to land upright on a pad without too much carrying capacity. On the other hand, carrying enough fuel to land upright on a pad would mean that Electron wouldn’t have enough room for its payload. However, an Electron only costs about $7.4 million per launch, and that price is expected to drop as rockets become reusable.

The company took a step in that direction by testing the rocket, which was captured in May and then dumped in the ocean. It has undergone some renovations, as all returned rockets must do. But afterwards it passed all static firing tests with flying colors, including producing enough thrust to enter orbit and passing all marks of a newly built Rutherford engine, the powerhouse behind the Electron.

This is all good news for the company and the private space industry as a whole. The next step is to complete a helicopter capture without having to dump it in the ocean, then reuse a rocket that has been in space. The company still has a lot to do, but before long it looks like launch costs will drop even further, thanks to even more reusable rockets.

Learn more:
RocketLab – Rocket Lab Successfully Completes First Repurposed Rutherford Engine Fire Test
UT – They did it! Rocket Lab uses a helicopter to catch (and release) a rocket
UT – Rocket Lab shows off its new reusable neutron rocket, slated for launch in 2024
UT – RocketLab picks up stage one booster for the first time: “Return to sender”

Main picture:
Rutherford engine which was taken out of the sky being successfully tested.
Credit – RocketLab

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