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Rocket Lab Executes Milestone First Stage Splashdown on ‘Return to Sender’ Launch

By Rachel Jewett | November 19, 2020
Rocket Lab Return to Sender misison

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket lifts off on the “Return to Sender” mission on Nov. 19. Screenshot via Rocket lab

Rocket Lab executed its “Return to Sender” mission on Thursday evening, launching 30 satellites and hitting the milestone of its first-ever post-launch Electron first stage recovery. 

The Electron launch vehicle took off from Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand at 2:20 UTC Nov. 19 (9:20 p.m. ET on Nov. 18). Stage separation occurred about two minutes and 30 seconds after liftoff. Following stage separation, the first stage was re-oriented for re-entry, and then a drogue parachute was deployed more than seven minutes after liftoff, followed by a second parachute. Rocket Lab confirmed the splashdown of Electron’s first stage 15 minutes after liftoff, and tweeted that recovery efforts were underway.

This marks a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to support an increased launch cadence for small satellite missions. Rocket Lab will now examine the recaptured first and work to reuse the stage for future missions. Rocket Lab plans to recover stages from future missions by capturing the boosters mid-air with a helicopter, versus the soft water landing used on this launch. 

Payloads were deployed to Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) an hour after liftoff. The mission carried Millennium Space Systems‘ DRAGRACER mission, which will test new tether technologies, which was organized by TriSept. It also included BRO-2 and BRO-3, the second and third satellites in French company Unseenlabs’ planned constellation dedicated to maritime surveillance. It also carried 24 SpaceBEE satellites for Swarm’s satellite and Internet of Things (IoT) communications constellation, in addition to a project from the University of Auckland, and a tiny gnome figurine called Gnome Chompski to test a novel 3D printing technique.