Update for 9:45 pm ET Nov. 17: Rocket Lab has successfully launched an Electron booster into orbit carrying two BlackSky satellites and returned its first-stage booster to Earth for an ocean splashdown. Read our full story here.
Rocket Lab plans to recover a booster after launching two satellites to orbit tonight (Nov. 10), and you can watch the action live.
A two-stage Electron rocket topped with two commercial Earth-observation satellites is scheduled to lift off tonight from Rocket Lab's New Zealand site at 11:25 p.m. EST (0425 GMT on Nov. 11). If all goes according to plan, shortly after liftoff, the Electron's first stage will splash down softly in the Pacific Ocean under parachutes, and Rocket Lab teams will fish it out of the sea.
The main goal of tonight's mission, which Rocket Lab calls "Love at First Insight," is to deliver two satellites to orbit for the company BlackSky. But the booster recovery is an important sidelight, because it will inform Rocket Lab's quest to make the Electron's first stage reusable.
Rocket Lab has conducted two Electron recoveries already, during missions that launched in November 2020 and May 2021. But tonight's attempt will be the first to include a helicopter, which will be stationed in the recovery zone about 230 miles (370 kilometers) off the New Zealand coast.
Rocket Lab plans to eventually pluck each falling Electron first stage out of the sky with a helicopter, and tonight's activities will provide a sort of dry run for that ambitious plan.
"The helicopter will not attempt a mid-air capture for this mission but will test communications and tracking to refine the concept of operations (CONOPS) for future Electron aerial capture," Rocket Lab representatives wrote in a preview of tonight's mission.
The 59-foot-tall (18 meters) Electron gives small satellites dedicated rides to orbit. "Love At First Insight" will be the rocket's 22nd launch overall and its fifth of 2021.
One of this year's flights — the May 2021 launch that featured a successful booster recovery — attempted to loft two BlackSky satellites. But an anomaly occurred in the Electron's upper stage engine igniter system, resulting in the loss of both satellites.
If "Love At First Insight" does not get off the ground tonight, it will have other chances; the launch window runs through Nov. 24.
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.