Four months after the spectacular feat that was catching a descending rocket stage in mid-airRocket Lab has re-ignited one of the engines from that booster, an important step in their roadmap to implementing a fully reusable rocket.
The Rutherford engine, one of nine that power the Electron launch vehicles, went aboard the There and Again mission in May, culminating in live footage of the booster as it descended by parachute. They ended up having to drop it into the ocean anyway because it was affecting the helicopter’s maneuverability, but other than that it worked like a charm.
Of course, any engine that has been through this much will need to be inspected, cleaned and, if necessary, repaired, especially if it has spent some time in the drink.
The lucky engine in this case went through the full range of tests that new engines have to go through, eventually blasting for 200 seconds straight. According to Rocket Lab, the used engine performed to the same standard required for a new one. You can watch the quiz from start to finish here:
Don’t worry, these aren’t engine parts flying around. This stuff is cryogenically cooled, so it’s mostly water and ice.
“Being able to use the Electron with minimal rework is the ultimate goal, so the fact that the rebuilt components of this engine have performed on the test bench with minimal rework is further confirmation that we’re on the right track,” said CEO and founder of Rocket Lab Peter Beck in a press release. “If we can achieve this high level of performance from engine components recovered from the ocean, then I’m optimistic and incredibly excited about what we can do when we get dry engines back under a helicopter next time.”
Reusable boosters are increasingly seen as the best way to achieve both high cadence and relatively low firing costs. Building new engines and rockets is hard work – why throw them away when you’re done? But a rocket designed to be used once can be very different from one designed to be reused, and Rocket Lab is adjusting its approach to accommodate the latter.
The next mission, where they will attempt to capture a falling first-stage booster, will take place before the end of the year, the company said, but no date has been set yet.
I’ve asked Rocket Lab for a few more details and will update this post if I hear back.