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A new way to make rockets reusable: catch them mid-air with a helicopter

Palo Alto

ROCKET Lab has sent seven spacecraft into Earth's orbit, an impressive feat for a 13-year-old company. Now it wants to get those rockets back.

Peter Beck, the founder and chief executive officer of the rocket maker, outlined a plan on Tuesday to develop small, reusable spacecrafts. Rather than use thrusters to help the rockets land as they reenter the atmosphere, Rocket Lab will deploy parachutes and then catch the rocket body in mid-air with a helicopter.

It's a daring idea and one that goes against Mr Beck's previous suggestion that reuse wasn't technologically feasible. "Unfortunately, I find myself in the position of eating my hat," Mr Beck said onstage at a space industry conference.

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California-based Rocket Lab became enamoured of the reuse idea, Mr Beck said, as it performed more launches and started gathering data from its systems that made the concept seem possible. It plans to keep conducting more tests on its next two launches and to "begin first-stage recovery attempts in the coming year", the company said in a statement.

Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp has garnered the most attention for its ability to land rockets back on a pad after they've delivered cargo to space. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' rocket company, has also demonstrated similar technology. More traditional rocket companies and governments had downplayed the reuse idea until Mr Musk proved its was possible and practical.

Being able to reuse the kind of smaller projectiles that Rocket Lab makes would be a leap forward for the aerospace business. Rocket Lab's goal is to stage launches more often by reducing manufacturing times through reuse and eventually to perhaps lower launch costs as well. "We think we have a really good shot at making this happen," Mr Beck said.

In the meantime, Rocket Lab is raising prices. As the company builds a second launch site in the US at Wallops Island in Virginia, it recently increased the starting cost to US$7.5 million per launch, from US$5 million. That's still much cheaper than what companies and governments typically charge to carry cargo on large rockets. Prices on those range from US$50 million to US$300 million.

SpaceX is the cheapest and most nimble of the bunch, sending up a rocket every three weeks or so. Its reusable spacecraft can carry many tons of cargo to orbit. In general, the large rockets are cheaper than the small ones in terms of cost per pound.

Mr Beck started Rocket Lab in 2006, as the embodiment of his childhood dreams. Growing up on New Zealand's South Island, he built homemade rocket propellant and engines in a backyard shed.

Rather than attend university, he took on a series of engineering apprenticeships and jobs, working on things ranging from dishwashers to yachts. At each stop, he would tinker on rocket designs and teach himself the physics behind them during his spare time.

By 2009, he and a very small team managed to send a small rocket into space, becoming the first private company in the Southern Hemisphere to pull off the feat. From there, Rocket Lab continued engineering rockets, building its factory and raising capital from local investors and then major US backers. Crucially, Mr Beck navigated the morass of legal procedures needed to set up an aerospace corporation in New Zealand and to blast off what are essentially missiles with the US government's blessing.

More recently, Rocket Lab has emerged as the darling of the small rocket launch business. There are dozens of companies scattered around the world trying to make cheaper rockets that can carry roughly 136kg of cargo into orbit for anywhere between US$1 million and US$8 million a pop.

Rocket Lab is the only member of this new wave to start launching with any frequency. Its seventh flight was completed in June from a private spaceport located off the east coast of New Zealand's North Island. In the coming years, the company hopes to launch every week and perhaps as often as every three days.

An advantage of small rockets is that companies and researchers can get things to space on a lower budget and, if all goes according to plan, on relatively short notice.

Right now, satellite makers have to plan their launches on big rockets many months in advance. The hope for the small rocket makers is that new breeds of tiny satellites will create a huge demand for rocket launches.

Rocket Lab is expected to face more competition in the coming year, particularly from US companies. Virgin Orbit, Firefly Aerospace, Vector Launch and a secretive Northern Californian startup known, for the moment, as Stealth Space Co are all testing rockets and preparing for launches. BLOOMBERG