Rocket Lab launches 30 satellites, recovers booster in reusability milestone

Rocket Lab just delivered a passel of satellites to orbit and took a big step toward booster reusability.

Rocket Lab's two-stage Electron booster lifted off from the company's New Zealand launch site today (Nov. 19) at 9:20 p.m. EST (0220 GMT on Nov. 20), carrying 30 spacecraft to low Earth orbit on a mission called "Return to Sender." 

About that name: After its part of the flight wrapped up, the Electron's first stage came back down for a guided, parachute-aided splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, about 400 miles (650 kilometers) off the New Zealand coast. 

Then, about two hours after liftoff, Rocket Lab personnel fished the booster out of the drink with a recovery ship. The company will haul it to shore for analyses that will inform its quest to make Electron's first stage reusable.

Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photos)

"Once we get it back into the factory, it's like a CSI [crime scene investigation], really," Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told reporters during a teleconference on Nov. 4. "We'll pull it all apart and really, really dig into how well each of the components in the subassemblies have performed."

Achieving the reusability goal will likely make Electron missions significantly cheaper for Rocket Lab and its customers, Beck has said. But the main envisioned benefit is a boost in rocket production rates and launch frequencies. 

"Even if it's economically neutral, the fact that we don't have to build more vehicles in the same factory is a really big advantage," Beck said during the Nov. 4 call.

Rocket Lab eventually plans to snag falling Electrons out of the sky using helicopters, a technique it demonstrated this past March during a drop test with a dummy booster. The 59-foot-tall (18 meters) Electron is too small to make powered touchdowns à la the first stages of SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets; Electron cannot feasibly carry enough fuel to have the required amount left over for landing, Beck has said.

Rocket Lab has guided Electron first stages back to Earth in a controlled fashion during operational launches before. But "Return to Sender" — the 16th Electron flight — marks the first time the company has done so with a parachute, and the first time a booster was recovered post-flight.

As exciting as the splashdown and recovery were, the chief aim of "Return to Sender" was to get the 30 payloads aloft. And that did happen: The satellites were all deployed into a circular orbit about 310 miles (500 km) above Earth by an hour after liftoff, Beck said via Twitter on Thursday night.

Twenty-four of the satellites that went up today are tiny "SpaceBees" that will be operated by California company Swarm Technologies. Swarm is assembling a constellation of 150 SpaceBees that will provide communications services to "Internet of Things" devices around the world.

Also aboard "Return to Sender" were two satellites for Virginia-based TriSept Corp.'s Drag Racer mission. Drag Racer will test the ability of long tethers to de-orbit satellites efficiently, potentially demonstrating technology that could alleviate Earth's growing space-junk problem.

Unseenlabs also had two small spacecraft on "Return to Sender," the second and third members of the French company's planned 20-satellite maritime-surveillance constellation. Unseenlabs' network will enable "improved monitoring of activities at sea, such as illegal fishing and anti-environmental behavior," Rocket Lab wrote in a "Return to Sender" mission description.

Another satellite, called Waka Āmiorangi Aotearoa APSS-1, was built by students in the Auckland Programme for Space Systems at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The spacecraft will investigate a possible link between earthquakes and disturbances in Earth's upper atmosphere, Rocket Lab representatives wrote.

Finally, "Return to Sender" also lofted a 3D-printed depiction of Gnome Chompski, a garden gnome from the Half-Life video game series. The 6-inch-tall (15 centimeters) titanium gnome won't stay up long, however: Throughout the mission, it will stay attached to Electron's kick stage, which delivers satellites to precise orbits and then performs a suicide dive into Earth's atmosphere to avoid becoming a piece of space junk.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.