Rocket Lab reconsiders restoring airborne electron boosters

BROOMFIELD, Colo. – Rocket Lab is considering using air recycle from Electron Boosters as part of its efforts to repurpose the vehicle.

In comments during a Feb. 28 earnings conference call, Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said the company was evaluating how to salvage stages from the sea and refurbish them for launch rather than catching a stage in a helicopter, something which the company tried twice. unsuccessful last year.

On the second attempt last November, Rocket Lab aborted the helicopter catch due to a temporary loss of booster telemetry. The company instead splashed the stage in the ocean, where it was recovered by a boat and returned to Rocket Lab’s facilities.

“That was a pretty fortunate turn of events,” he said on the call. “Electron survived a sea salvage in remarkably good condition, and in many cases its components actually pass requalification for flight.”

He said the company is planning a sea salvage on an upcoming flight after additional waterproofing is installed in the vehicle’s operations.”

“In 2022, we proved that it’s possible to meet up with a returning stage in mid-air and get it on the helicopter’s hook,” Beck said, referring to the first salvage attempt that saw the deer fly away helicopter but released moments later, “but if we can save ourselves the extra step by simply plucking out water, we will.”

He later said the cost was “neutral” between the air and ocean salvage: the extra work to waterproof and refurbish the booster was offset by not having to operate a helicopter. However, Beck estimated that it can perform helicopter recovery on about 50% of Elektron launches, but increases to 60-70% on water recovery.

“The water landing allows us to recover more vehicles because we don’t have the limitations of helicopter operations,” he said. “So financially it’s similar, but we can actually reuse more vehicles.”

Capella contract and upcoming product launches

Rocket Lab on Feb. 28 separately announced a contract with Capella Space for four electron launches of the company’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites. Each launch will carry a single satellite of Capella’s new Acadia series of satellites. These launches will begin in the second half of 2023 from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, although Rocket Lab has the option to move the launches to Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Virginia.

“The recent multi-launch deal with Capella Space will further extend our leadership position as the trusted small launch provider of choice for constellation operators,” Beck said on the conference call. “We have now launched and signed deals with some of the most prominent constellations and operators worldwide, demonstrating the value Electron brings to these customers by offering a reliable and flexible launch into bespoke orbits.”

The new contract comes in addition to an Electron launch planned for March for Capella from Launch Complex 2, which carries two Whitney-series satellites. This launch will come within days of another Electron launch from Launch Complex 1 with two BlackSky Gen2 imaging satellites. Rocket Lab hasn’t released exact dates for the two launches, but there are airspace restrictions for a Wallops launch between March 11 and 17.

These launches will come after Rocket Lab’s first launch this year, its inaugural mission from Launch Complex 2 in January. The three launches are expected to account for $19 million in revenue for the first quarter, which is part of overall guidance of $51 million to $54 million in revenue for Rocket Lab for the quarter.

These launches will prepare the company for up to 15 launches in 2023. “With our target of three launches in the first quarter, I think we’re in great shape to hit that number of 15,” Rocket Lab’s chief financial officer Adam Spice said. Demand is higher, but he warned that the “school of hard hits” has taught the company the risks of customer defaults.

“We’ve risk-adjusted the numbers, so we believe 15 is the right number for the year given where we are and given the likelihood that some programs could push to the right,” he said.

That demand, Beck added, meant the company didn’t see pricing pressure on Electron launches. “Electron prices have never gone down. It’s only ever gone up.”

That will continue, Spice predicted, as other small launch vehicle developers exit the market. “I think it’s only a matter of time before the natural selection process really takes us to a point where launching Electron becomes more expensive, not less expensive,” he said.

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