Featured image credit: Rocket Lab
Check out our Prelaunch Preview if you want to know more about the mission before lift off.
Lift Off Time
|May 02, 2022 – 22:49 UTC |
May 03, 2022 – 10:49 NZT
|There and Back Again, a commercial rideshare mission|
|Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Unseenlabs, and Swarm Technologies|
|Launch Complex-1A, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand|
Where did the satellites go?
|520 km Sun-Synchronous orbit|
Did they attempt to recover the first stage?
|Yes, it was their first attempt of mid-air helicopter capture of the Electron rocket!|
Where did the first stage land?
|It softly splashed down for an ocean recovery|
Did they attempt to recover the fairings?
Were these fairings new?
This was the:
|– 1st time that a helicopter will catch Electron’s booster mid-air|
– 3rd Rocket Lab launch of 2022
– 26th Electron launch
– 48th orbital launch attempt of 2022 (47th successful)
Where to re-watch
|Official replay |
Everyday Astronaut replay
How Did It Go?
Rocket Lab successfully launched the There and Back Again mission, which lifted off from Launch Complex-1A, Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand. The mission was originally scheduled for April 19 but was delayed several times due to unfavorable wind and cloud cover conditions. On the There and Back Again mission, Electron carried 34 payloads for commercial operators Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Unseenlabs, and Swarm Technologies via global launch services provider Spaceflight Inc.
Moreover, this mission marked the first attempt of a mid-air helicopter capture of the Electron launch vehicle as it returns to Earth from space. The mid-air capture was successful, however, shortly after the catch, the pilot detected different load characteristics than experienced in previous recovery tests. Therefore, they released the stage so it could safely splash down in the ocean where it was retrieved by Rocket Lab’s recovery team.
There And Back Again Mission
There and Back Again was a commercial rideshare mission that carried 34 satellites bringing the total number of satellites launched by Rocket Lab to 146. A list of the providers included Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Unseenlabs, and Swarm Technologies.
Alba Orbital is a Scottish launch broker and a manufacturer of PocketQubes, a type of miniaturized satellites with a size of 5 × 5 × 5 cm and a mass of no more than 250 grams. On the There and Back Again mission, Electron carried four pico-satellites that include Alba Orbital’s own Unicorn-2 PocketQube satellite, as well as the TRSI-2, TRSI-3, and MyRadar-1 satellites for Alba Orbital’s customers. The Unicorn-2 was developed by the company in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and has performance equivalent to that of a 3U cubesat.
All four satellites were deployed to a 500 km circular orbit by Electron’s Kick Stage. Their main goal is to demonstrate innovative radio and night-time Earth observation technologies. More particularly, the Unicorn-2 platform features a payload that will perform optical night-time imaging to monitor light pollution across the globe.
Astrix Astronautics is a young New Zealand start-up formed by University of Auckland science and engineering students (chief executive Fia Jones, Will Hunter, and Max Daniels). Peter Beck is a board observer of the company. Astrix Astronautics is developing high power systems to provide simple and reliable deployment of small satellites. They use a new inflatable technology to create a lightweight but powerful generation device with 300W/kg for small satellites.
On this mission, Astrix Astronautics will test their Copia power generation system for CubeSats and will demonstrate its high performance in space. This system features 1U solar arrays that are able to capture up to 200W.
Aurora Propulsion Technologies
Aurora Propulsion Technologies is a Finnish company that develops thrusters and de-orbiting modules for small satellites to ensure sustainable use of space. This time, Electron delivered their AuroraSat-1 into low Earth orbit. The AuroraSat-1 is a 1.5U CubeSat that has ARM-A and APB modules as primary payloads.
ARM-A (Aurora Resistojet Module) is a system that gives a spacecraft propulsion-based mobility control. The AuroraSat-1 features a small version of this module that consists of six resistojet thrusters. The system uses a water-based propellant with a freezing point below -10 °C.
APB (Aurora Plasma Brake) is a new deorbiting device that does not need any propellant, instead, it uses the interaction of charged particles in space and a micro-tether to provide strong Coulomb drag and deorbit the spacecraft. The AuroraSat-1 has a twin APB that will be tested on this mission.
E-Space is a Rwanda-backed mega-constellation startup that aims to “increase the speed for constellation delivery from years to months”. The There and Back Again mission brought three demo satellites into orbit to demonstrate and validate the platform for E-Space’s new sustainable satellite system. According to CEO Greg Wyler, their satellites have significantly smaller cross-sections than those in other mega-constellations. This will help to decrease the risk of in-orbit collisions. Moreover, these satellites will automatically deorbit in case any systems malfunction. In a long term, the satellites will be able to capture small debris from space and deorbit them to burn up on re-entry.
The French company, Unseenlabs, launched their BRO-6 satellite (6U). 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.
Two stacks of SpaceBEEs were deployed on this mission for Internet-of-Things (IoT) constellation operator, Swarm Technologies through Spaceflight Inc. The 1/4U IoT 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.
Rocket Lab’s Recovery Program
The company has revealed its plans for the recovery program in 2019. The global aim of this program is to safely recover and re-fly Electron’s first stage. This would allow the company to increase launch cadence even further by reducing production time spent to build new first stages from scratch.
Rocket Lab’s recovery program is divided into two phases. The first one consisted of three ocean splashdown recovery missions (16th, 20th, and 22nd missions), where a full Electron first stage was recovered from the water and shipped back to the production complex for closer inspection. On these flights, Rocket Lab gathered the necessary data needed for understanding the recovery process and introducing updates to the vehicle’s design. For example, the Love At The First Insight mission featured an advanced parachute, improvements to the heat shield, and added thermal protection system. Check out their demo video that illustrates all steps of the recovery program!
The Love At The First Insight mission had concluded the first phase of the recovery program and for the first time included a helicopter in the recovery process by observing Electron’s descent. Even before that, Rocket Lab performed many successful helicopter captures with replica stages.
In 2020, the company released a video of one of their successful attempts conducted in New Zealand. During this test, an Airbus AS350 helicopter carried a replica stage at the end of a long line and released it over the open ocean, which caused its parachute to deploy. A second helicopter (Bell 429) then came into play and caught the parachute’s drogue line by its capture mechanism attached to the end of a long line.
However, for the There and Back Again mission, a customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks was used. This large twin engine helicopter is usually used for search and rescue operations, as well as for offshore gas and oil transportation. Check out one of their capture tests with this helicopter here.
Some characteristics of this helicopter are given in the table below.
|Top Speed||306 km/h|
|Max Takeoff Weight||12,837 kg|
|Engine Power (each)||1,879 kW|
Recovery Mission Profile
An hour prior to liftoff, Sikorsky S-92 moved in the capture zone (~ 288 km off New Zealand’s coast) to await launch. This mission’s recovery process went as follows. First, the reaction control system reoriented the booster 180° for re-entry. This orientation, as well as the heat shield, helped the vehicle withstand temperatures up to 2400 °C as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds (8,300 km per hour, ~8 times the speed of sound). After decelerating to supersonic speeds (< Mach 2), Electron deployed a drogue parachute at 13 km altitude that stabilized the stage and continued slowing it down. Then, the main parachute came into play at an altitude of around 6 km to increase drag even further, to 36 km per hour.
After that, a helicopter stationed in the recovery zone was deployed, rendezvoused with the returning booster, and successfully caught its parachute line via a hook. Then, the helicopter was supposed to unload the booster onto the recovery vessel, which would have marked the first attempt of an at-sea offload of the company. However, shortly after the catch, the pilot detected different load characteristics than experienced in previous recovery tests. The stage was, therefore, released and softly landed in the ocean. There, Rocket Lab’s recovery crew fished Electron out of the water. The recovered stage was then returned to land for thorough inspection.
|– 04:00:00||Road to the launch site is closed|
|– 04:00:00||Electron is raised vertical, fueling begins|
|– 02:30:00||Launch pad is cleared|
|– 02:00:00||LOx load begins|
|– 02:00:00||Safety zones are activated for designated marine space|
|– 00:30:00||Safety zones are activated for designated airspace|
|– 00:18:00||GO/NO GO poll|
|– 00:02:00||Launch auto sequence begins|
|Events (Recovery Events Are In Orange)|
|– 00:00:02||Rutherford engine ignition|
|+ 00:02:27||Main Engine Cut-Off (MECO) on Electron’s first stage|
|+ 00:02:32||Stage 1 separation|
|+ 00:02:36||Stage 2 Rutherford engine ignition|
|+ 00:03:06||Fairing separation|
|+ 00:04:36||Stage 1 apogee|
|+ 00:07:26||Battery jettison|
|+ 00:07:29||Stage 1 Drogue parachute deploys|
|+ 00:08:12||Stage 1 main parachute deploys|
|+ 00:10:15||Electron reaches orbit|
|+ 00:10:19||Stage 2 engine cut-off|
|+ 00:10:23||Stage 2 separation from Kick Stage|
|+ 00:18:21||Stage 1 captured|
|+ 00:57:43||Kick Stage Curie engine ignition|
|+ 00:59:11||Curie engine cut-off|
|~+ 01:00:00||All payloads deployed|
What Is Electron?
Rocket Lab’s Electron is a small-lift launch vehicle designed and developed specifically to place small satellites (CubeSats, nano-, micro-, and mini satellites) into LEO and Sun-synchronous orbits (SSO). Electron consists of two stages with optional third stages.
Electron is about 18.5 meters (60.7 feet) in height and only 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) in diameter. It is not only small in size, but also light-weighted. The vehicle structures are made of advanced carbon fiber composites, which yields an enhanced performance of the rocket. Electron’s payload lift capacity to LEO is 300 kg (~660 lb).
The maiden flight It’s A Test was launched on May 25, 2017, from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex-1 (LC-1) in New Zealand. On this mission, a failure in the ground communication system occurred, which resulted in the loss of telemetry. Even though the company had to manually terminate the flight, there was no larger issue with the vehicle itself. Since then, Electron has flown a total of 26 times (23 of them were fully successful) and delivered 146 satellites into orbit.
First And Second Stage
|First Stage||Second Stage|
|Engine||9 Rutherford engines||1 vacuum optimized Rutherford engine|
|Thrust Per Engine||24 kN (5,600 Ibf)||25.8 kN (5,800 Ibf)|
|Specific Impulse (ISP)||311 s||343 s|
Electron’s first stage is composed of linerless common bulkhead tanks for propellant, and an interstage, and powered by nine sea-level Rutherford engines. The second stage also consists of tanks for propellant (~2,000 kg of propellant) and is powered by a single vacuum optimized Rutherford engine. The main difference between these two variations of the Rutherford engine is that the latter has an expanded nozzle that results in improved performance in near-vacuum conditions.
For the Love At First Insight mission, the company introduced an update to the second stage by stretching it by 0.5 m. Moreover, they flew an Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) for the first time.
Rutherford engines are the main propulsion source for Electron and were designed in-house, specifically for this vehicle. They are running on rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOx). There are at least two things about the Rutherford engine that make it stand out.
Firstly, all primary components of Rutherford engines are 3D printed. Main propellant valves, injector pumps, and engine chamber are all produced by electron beam melting (EBM), which is one of the variations of 3D printing. This manufacturing method is cost-effective and time-efficient, as it allows to fabricate a full engine in only 24 hours.
Rutherford is the first RP-1/LOx engine that uses electric motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries to power its propellant pumps. These pumps are crucial components of the engine as they feed the propellants into the combustion chamber, where they ignite and produce thrust. However, the process of transporting liquid fuel and oxidizer into the chamber is not trivial. In a typical gas generator cycle engine, it requires additional fuel and complex turbomachinery just to drive those pumps. Rocket Lab decided to use battery technology instead, which allowed eliminating a lot of extra hardware without compromising the performance.
Different Third Stages
Electron has optional third stages, also known as the Kick Stage, Photon, and deep-space version of Photon. The Kick Stage is powered by a single Curie engine that can produce 120 N of thrust. Like Rutherford, it was designed in-house and is fabricated by 3D printing. Apart from the engine, the Kick Stage consists of carbon composite tanks for propellant storage and 6 reaction control thrusters.
The Kick Stage in its standard configuration serves as in-space propulsion to deploy Rocket Lab’s customers’ payloads to their designated orbits. It has re-light capability, which means that the engine can re-ignite several times to send multiple payloads into different individual orbits. One example includes Electron 19th mission, They Go Up So Fast, launched in March earlier this year. The Curie engine was ignited to circularize the orbit, before deploying a payload to 550 km. Curie then re-lighted to lower the altitude to 450 km, and the remaining payloads were successfully deployed. For the There and Back Again mission, the kick stage was ignited once to circularize its orbit.
Photon And Deep-Space Photon
Rocket Lab offers an advanced configuration of the Kick Stage, its Photon satellite bus. Photon can accommodate various payloads and function as a separate operational spacecraft supporting long-term missions. Among the features that it can provide to satellites are power, avionics, propulsion, and communications.
But there is more to it. Photon also comes as a deep-space version that will carry interplanetary missions. It is powered by a HyperCurie engine, an evolution of the Curie engine. The HyperCurie engine is electric pump-fed, so it can use solar cells to charge up the batteries in between burns. It has an extended nozzle to be more efficient than the standard Curie, and runs on some “green hypergolic fuel” that Rocket Lab has not yet disclosed. NASA already plans to use the deep-space version of Photon for its robotic Moon mission CAPSTONE. On this mission, the Photon spacecraft will deliver NASA’s 25 kg CubeSat into a unique lunar orbit, formally known as a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO). You can read more about CAPSTONE here.