“Return to Sender on the launchpad at Lauch Complext 1 in Mahia. Photo / @RocketLab
Rocket Lab is hoping for three historic firsts with its “Return to Sender” launch from Mahia this afternoon, slated for 2.45pm. A livestream will begin prior to launch which, as ever, is subject to possible delay [UPDATE: The launch has been delayed until 3.20pm to allow a passing plane to get out of range]
All going well, it will be the first time the Kiwi-American company retrieves the booster stage of one of its Electron rockets – for re-use in a future mission.
It will also become the first rocket to fly an NZ student-made satellite into space – “APSS-1”, an Auckland University effort designed to measure electrical activity in the upper atmosphere – and whether disturbances in that activity can be correlated to earthquakes (see the full payload manifest below). APSS-1 will also be the first NZ satellite not built by Rocket Lab.
And, on a more light-hearted level, it will also be the first time that Rocket Lab has shot a gnome into space. “Gnome Chompski” was 3D-printed by Weta Workshop for Gabe Newell – a US tech billionaire who got stranded in New Zealand while on holiday during the first lockdown, then decided to stick around for a spell. It’s in a promotional cause – “Chompski” is in injoke to promote the gaming platform Newell founded, Valve, and in a good cause: Newell will donate $1 Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital for every person who watches the launch livestream (embedded above).
There will be no happy ending for Chompsky.
The 150 mm gnome will remain attached to the Kick Stage during all mission phases, but will burn up upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere during the de-orbiting process.
Retrieve and re-use
Previously, the booster, or first-stage, which accounts for most of the 28m tall Electron’s height, has been angled to burn up while re-entering the atmosphere after it separates.
The reusable rocket plan will be implemented in two phases – and is a bit more Kiwi/No.8 wire than Space X’s effort, which sees Falcon 9 boosters return to Earth under engine power to (mostly) make right-side-up vertical landings.
The first phase will be implemented with today’s Rocket Lab’s “Return to Sender” mission.
The booster stage will fall to Earth by parachute some 12 minutes after takeoff, falling into the ocean downrange of Launch Complex 1 at Mahia. All going to plan, a retrieval vessel will then locate it, and ship it to Rocket Lab’s production complex in Auckland for refurbishment.
“The recovery process at sea will take several hours, so we won’t be showing that live, though we hope to have footage available to share after the fact,” a Rocket Lab rep tells the Herald.
“The stage does have a camera on it for re-entry, but we expect to lose the telemetry bringing us the feed once the stage descends to about 30km altitude.”
The second phase, which will be attempted with a future mission, will see a helicopter attempt to snag the first-stage as it parachutes back to earth.
The company has already trialed a mid-air capture (see video below), albeit using a lightweight dummy booster.
“Return to Sender” will be its 16th launch and its sixth this year.
But chief executive Peter Beck says re-using rockets will allow an even faster turnaround time between launches.
“Recovering the first stage of a small launch vehicle is uncharted territory. What we’re trying to achieve with Electron is an incredibly difficult and complex challenge, but one we’re willing to pursue to further boost launch cadence and deliver even more frequent launch opportunities to small satellite operators,” Beck says.
Newell became stranded in New Zealand during a 10-day holiday that ran into the March lockdown, then decided to stay on. The divorced, 57-year-old father of two says he can get just as much done working remotely from NZ than remotely from his home in Seattle (where he became a multi-millionaire at Microsoft, where he worked on the first three releases of Windows).
Valve develops its own video games, and sells titles from all-comers through its Steam online store, which has become the dominant online platform for distributing gaming content in the post-disc age. Forbes estimates Newell’s wealth at US$4 billion ($5.7b).
So he can well afford a folly such as sending “Gnome Chompski” into space.
But while the gnome-alone might recall some of Rocket Lab’s less scientific efforts, such as founder Peter Beck’s disco-ball satellite or its artificial shooting stars to entertain the mega-rich effort, in this case there does seem to be a degree of utility.
Rocket Lab says, “Manufactured with support from multi-award-winning design studio Weta Workshop, the unique space component is additively manufactured from titanium and printed in the shape of Half-Life gaming icon Gnome Chompski.
“The mission serves as an homage to the innovation and creativity of gamers worldwide, and also aims to test and qualify a novel 3D-printing technique that could be employed for future spacecraft components. The 150 mm gnome will remain attached to the Kick Stage during all mission phases and will burn up upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere during the de-orbiting process.”
During an online event, Newell said his company was only 50 per cent to 75 per cent as productive with staff working remotely. Without explicitly mentioning Valve, he said it would make sense for game development companies to relocate – at least temporarily – to New Zealand, where they could work together in an office. He’s angling to get a meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to develop his idea.
Rocket Lab’s 16th mission: the payloads
The mission, which will be Rocket Lab’s 16th Electron launch, will lift-off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula during a 14-day launch window that opens on November 16 NZT / November 15 UTC.
Organisation: Te Pūnaha Ātea – Auckland Space Institute, The University of Auckland
The student-built Waka Āmiorangi Aotearoa APSS-1 satellite is designed to monitor electrical activity in Earth’s upper atmosphere to test whether ionospheric disturbances can predict earthquakes. The data from this mission will deliver deeper knowledge of these hard-to-access altitudes and drive understanding of how phenomena such as solar wind and geophysical events affect this atmospheric region.
The DRAGRACER mission will test the effectiveness of new tether technologies designed to accelerate spacecraft reentry and reduce orbital debris at the conclusion of space missions. TriSept has completed the integration of a pair of qualified Millennium Space Systems 6U small satellites, one featuring the tether drag device and one without. The controlled spacecraft should deorbit in approximately 45 days, while the second spacecraft is expected to remain in orbit for seven to nine years, according to Tethers Unlimited, developer of the 70-meter-long (230 feet) Terminator Tape aboard the control satellite.
Payload: BRO-2 and BRO-3
BRO-2 and BRO-3 are the second and third satellites in French company Unseenlabs’ planned constellation of about 20 satellites dedicated to maritime surveillance. The first BRO satellite was launched to orbit by Rocket Lab in August 2019. Unseenlabs’ constellation enables improved monitoring of activities at sea, such as illegal fishing and anti-environmental behavior. Thanks to a unique proprietary technology, the BRO satellites are the first to be able to independently and precisely locate and fingerprint Radio Frequency (RF) emitters all around the globe, day or night, in any weather condition, and without requiring any special embarked tracking device. With three satellites in orbit, Unseenlabs’ clients can now benefit from the shortest revisit time available on the satellite RF geolocation market.
Organisation: Swarm Technologies
Swarm will launch the latest 24 1/4U SpaceBEE satellites to continue building out its planned constellation of 150 satellites to provide affordable satellite communications services to IoT devices in remote regions around the world. Swarm’s uniquely small satellites enable the company to provide network services and user hardware at the industry’s lowest cost and deliver maximum value to customers across a range of industries including maritime shipping, agriculture, energy, and ground transportation. The SpaceBEES will be integrated into two of Rocket Lab’s 12U Maxwell CubeSat dispensers for orbital deployment.
Mass Simulator: Gnome Chompski
Organisation: Gabe Newell, Founder of Valve Software
Manufactured with support from multi-award-winning design studio Weta Workshop, the unique space component is additively manufactured from titanium and printed in the shape of Half-Life gaming icon Gnome Chompski. The mission serves as an homage to the innovation and creativity of gamers worldwide, and also aims to test and qualify a novel 3D printing technique that could be employed for future spacecraft components. The 150 mm gnome will remain attached to the Kick Stage during all mission phases and will burn up upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere during the de-orbiting process.