Return to Sender | Electron

November 20, 2020 – 02:20:00 UTC

November 20, 2020 – 15:20:00 NZT

Return to Sender
Rocket Lab
TriSept, Unseenlabs, University of Auckland, Swarm Technologies, Gabe Newell (Valve)
Launch Complex 1A, Mahia Peninsula, New Zeland
Max of 300 kg (661 lbs), nominal payload mass of 200 kg (440 lbs)
Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO)
Yes (first time ever!!)
The first stage will softly splash down in the ocean approx. 650 km downrange
No. This is not a capability of Rocket Lab.
– 16th launch of Electron ever 

– 1st attempt at a first stage recovery

– first flight of the block 3 upgrade


Rocket Lab’s official livestream

Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, will be streaming at T-30 minutes; come ask questions and join the conversation live!

Graphic by Geoff Barrett Rocket by Stanley Creative

What’s all this mean?

Rocket Lab’s next mission dubbed “Return to Sender” is appropriately named due to it being the first mission where Rocket Lab will attempt to recover their first stage, or bring it back to where it came from. Flight 16 will also be launching from LC-1A on the Mahia Peninsula just as all of the previous ones have. This will change soon though when Rocket Lab launches from Launch Complex – 2, which is located on Wallops Island, Virginia, USA. For this mission, in particular, Electron will launch 30 satellites into a 500 km sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). These satellites are from various companies including TriSept, Unseenlabs, Swarm Technologies, and a few more.

Mission Profile for “Return to Sender” Mission. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

What’s on the rocket?

Every rocket ever launched has had some sort of payload whether it is an explosive device in the early days, humans, or space hardware to help improve life on Earth. Rocket Lab is a small satellite launcher which means that it launches smaller satellites, like CubeSats that only weigh up to around 100 kg (220 lbs) each. Electron’s max payload is 300 kg (660 lbs) with a nominal payload at around 200kg (440 lbs).

For “Return to Sender”, there are four main payloads, DRAGRACER, BRO-2 and BRO-3, APSS-1, Spacebees, and Gnome Chompski.


Built by TriSept, the DRAGRACER mission is set to test tether technology which is going to decrease the amount of orbital debris that is left after most space missions. This includes spent stages and hardware used to deploy spacecraft. This mission will launch 2 Millenium Space Systems 6u satellites, one which will be controlled and one which won’t. After 45 days, the controlled satellite will deorbit, the second will follow in approximately seven to nine years. The controlled satellite has what is called a “Terminator Tape”. This device will add drag to the satellite, similar to a parachute, and will therefore accelerate the reentry. Estimations show that with the device deployed, it will only take the satellite two to four weeks to deorbit.

BRO-2 and BRO-3

The French company, Unseenlabs, will be launching their next two satellites, BRO-2 and BRO-3. With an end goal of a 20 satellite constellation, the BRO (Breizh Recon Orbiter) satellites are being dedicated to maritime surveillance which will facilitate in stopping illegal fishing and environmentally unfriendly behavior. It will also help in the geolocation of sea vessels.


Auckland Program for Space Systems (APSS) has built its first satellite aimed at researching the electrical activity in the upper atmosphere of the Earth. The student-built Waka miorangi Aotearoa APSS-1 satellite will use the electrical activity to test whether disturbances in the ionosphere affect natural disasters such as Earthquakes. APSS-1 is an important mission for scientists since they will be able to gather information about how solar wind interacts with Earth in those hard to reach environments.

The APSS-1 cubesats in final preparation for payload integration. (Credit: Rocket Lab)


A set of two 24 1/4U SpaceBEE satellites will add to the grand constellation which hopes to eventually reach 150 satellites. These satellites will help provide affordable internet in hard to reach parts of the world that do not yet have access to it. Because these satellites are so light and small, this allows more money to be put into getting that reliable internet since they are of such a low cost to make and launch. Industries that might capitalize on the SpaceBEE constellation include ground transportation, maritime shipping, and agriculture.

Gnome Chompski

It’s Gnome time! Gnome Chompski will act not only as a mass simulator but also to test new 3D printing technology for satellite parts. This particular gnome was manufactured in support from Weta Workshop, an award-winning design shop in New Zealand that was founded in 1987. At 150 mm tall, the gnome refers to a Half-Life gaming icon, Gnome Chompski but will also test a titanium 3D printing technique that could be used on future satellites and satellite parts. Gabe Newell will donate one dollar to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit New Zealand’s Starship Foundation for every viewer on Rocket Lab’s livestream!

Gnome Chompski before payload integration… or is it gnome installation? (Credit: Rocket Lab)


Did someone say recovery?

Yes, that is correct. This mission will be the first that Rocket Lab will be attempting to recover the first stage of Electron after a soft splashdown in the ocean. In 2019, Rocket Lab announced their plans and process for recovery of the first stage. As of this launch, there is only one other orbital rocket company that recovers and reuses their first stages, that would be the well known SpaceX. SpaceX lands their boosters propulsively on either a floating platform in the ocean, called a droneship or back on land depending on the flight profile. Rocket Lab decided to take a slightly different approach.

Rocket Lab air recovery helicopter parachute electron ballute
Electron first stage beginning to slow down under a drag chute called a ballute. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

The sequence goes as follows. Electron will begin by entering the atmosphere, engine first. All of the plasma build up from reentry will instead be forced away from the bottom of Electron because of bow shock . After entering the atmosphere, Electron will deploy a ballute which is like a drag chute to help begin the process of slowing the vehicle down.

Once the rocket is at subsonic speeds, it will deploy a circular parachute which is almost the same device that World War II paratroopers often used. This will help slow the rocket down even farther for it to then make a soft water landing in the ocean. After this next huge milestone, Rocket Lab will attempt to recover mid air with a helicopter. Check out a previous Everyday Astronaut video on the topic:



What is Electron?

The Electron rocket, built and manufactured by Rocket Lab, is a smallsat launcher that is about 18 meters (59 feet) tall and only 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) in diameter. Yeah, its small. There is a rule in rocket physics that the more weight you reduce in a rocket, the more weight you can put into the payload. This is why Electron uses carbon composite materials which are extremely lightweight. In a video about Rocket Lab, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut took a tour of the facility in New Zealand and demonstrated that he could push the rocket by himself.

Electron on the pad before the “Don’t Stop Me Now” Mission. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Second Stage

Electron’s second stage comes in with a total thrust of 22 kN (5,000 lbf). Its single, vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine has a specific impulse of 333 seconds. Similar to the 9 Rutherford engines on the first stage, it is also 3D printed. The main goal of the second stage is to get the payload the rest of the way into orbit, and in cases where there are multiple payloads, do adjust the orbit to cater to all payloads. If the payload requires ceratin and specific orbits, Electron will have a kick stage just above the second stage to insert it into the desired orbit.


Rutherford Engine

The biggest stage of the small stack, the first stage, is powered by nine Rutherford Engines which are 3D printed in the USA. All engines are printed in about 24 hours and then are later assembled.  At 162 kN (34,50o lbf) of thrust at liftoff and a peak thrust of 192 kN (41,500 lbf) they are powerful for their size! Not only are they 3D printed, but they also are electric pump-fed. This means that instead of burning some fuel/oxidizer in a gas generator or preburner, an electric motor is used to increase pressure in the combustion chamber.

Rutherford engine (Credit: Rocket Lab)


Photon is Rocket Lab’s self-manufactured satellite family that aims to help make getting into orbit easier. A satellite bus is the “power house” of the satellite. It will often handle propulsion, electricity, and any other complicated and afterthought mechanisms. With Photon companies can create a satellite of up to 200 kg (440 lbs) without a bus, and then use Photon as their bus! Because Photon is a family of buses, they can range in size and shape catering to the weight of the satellite it is assisting.


Photo from Photon’s camera. (Credit: Rocket Lab)
  1. “can create a satellite of up to 200 kg (220 lbs) ” – 220 lbs is ~99,7 kg

    “to help being the process of slowing the vehicle down.” – typo, “being” instead of “begin”

  2. You forgot to mention the best thing about Gnome Chompsky. Gabe will be donating one dollar per viewer of the Rocket Labs stream to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit New Zealand’s Starship Foundation.

  3. Thanks so much to those who donated and viewed the live stream. My daughter is in and out of starship all the time and it is an amazing place.

    Ps. Long time viewer and much appreciate all your work.

  4. I noticed that the mission profile infographic no longer shows a Battery Jettison following Fairing Separation / Orbit Achieved. Was there a conscious decision made to end the Battery Jettison and subsequent “hot swap” following the ” Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” failure?


    Doug McVicar

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