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Rocket Lab readies parachute tests for its rocket recovery and reuse program

Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab is proceeding as planned with its efforts to recover and reuse spent rocket boosters from its Electron launch vehicle, and it has completed its first prototype parachute for use in the recovery process. Rocket lab CEO Peter Beck announced last year that it would be aiming for reusability with the first stage of its rocket, using a system that includes the booster re-entering Earth's atmosphere, then deploying a parachute to slow its descent so that it can be caught mid-air by a helicopter and returned to land.

Already, Rocket Lab has made good progress on its plan, with two tests under its belt of the guided re-entry part of the process, including a launch in early December 2019 and one just last week. Now, Beck said on Twitter that the company is ready to move on to stage two, which is developing the parachute system that will deploy once the rocket has completed re-entry, to slow its rate of descent. Rocket Lab's first parachute prototype is ready, Beck says, and the company will start testing it using low-altitude drops, as well as testing the capture process, beginning next week.

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Beck said during the event revealing Rocket Lab's reusability plan that the most difficult part of the whole process was reducing the rocket's speed during its return to Earth, which could mean that these parachute tests will be relatively simple to ace compared to the re-entry guidance system tests that preceded it. Then, it'll be a matter of integrating the two systems, so that the returning rocket can slow itself enough just through orientation (it's not firing any retro rockets in Earth's atmosphere to control its descent like SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster) to enable the parachute to take it the rest of the way.

Rocket Lab plans to attempt a full rocket recovery sometime before the end of 2020, and if it manages to get the process right, the primary benefit for the company will be an increased ability to turn around missions for more frequent successive launches, which Beck says is key to its goals of providing responsive, flexible launch services for customers.