"Recovering the first stage of a small launch vehicle is uncharted territory".
Rocket Lab has guided Electron first stages back to Earth in a controlled fashion during operational launches before.
"Splashdown of Electron's first stage confirmed", Rocket Lab tweeted this morning, "recovery ops are underway".
During this 16th launch, Rocket Lab practiced those steps, including the parachute deploy, after launching the Electron from the company's main facility in New Zealand.
Several minutes after the launch, Electron's first and second stages separated at an altitude of about 80 kilometres. A system of parachutes was deployed during the descent, and the stage splashed down into the ocean.
A recovery ship will pick up the rocket, which will then be kitted out for its next mission. "It took a monumental effort from many teams across Rocket Lab, and it's exciting to see that work pay off in a major step towards making Electron a reusable rocket", said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. Among the payloads deployed were satellites created to test new methods of deorbiting space debris, enable internet from space, and build upon a maritime surveillance constellation.
University of Auckland paid for its spot on the spacecraft, but the launch would not cost it, she said.
There was also a "mass simulator" in the shape of a gnome fixed to the Kick Stage component sent up by United States gaming billionaire Gabe Newell, co-founder of global gaming software company Valve. While watching Gnome Chompski get launched to space for real was a spectacle enjoyed by gamers worldwide, Mr. Chompski also served an important R&D function by allowing Rocket Lab to test and qualify novel 3D printing techniques that could be employed for future spacecraft components. While the Electron slowly descends to Earth, Rocket Lab will send out a helicopter to snag hold of the parachutes' line, effectively catching the vehicle from mid-air and preventing the hardware from hitting the ocean.
For every person who watches the launch online, Newell will donate $1 to Starship Children's Hospital paediatric intensive care unit. "Thank you to our incredible customers, and to the tireless team behind Electron who delivered mission success once again".
Appropriately enough, the company's 16th mission was nicknamed "Return to Sender". Rocket Lab's rideshare mechanism meant lots of satellites hitched a ride together, with the price dependent on the size and the complexity of the mission. This information will be useful as the company moves ahead with its recovery program, which involves plans of capturing the Electron booster in mid-air with a helicopter, something it was able to successfully demonstrate using a dummy first stage earlier in the year.
Reusing the first stage of launch vehicles - that is to say, the booster that takes the payload from the ground to the edge of space, where a second stage takes over - has the potential to vastly reduce the cost of getting to orbit. Electron is a full carbon-composite launch vehicle tailored for small satellites. Rocket Lab operates launch sites in Māhia, New Zealand and Wallops Island, Virginia.