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Rocket Lab Plans to Reuse Engine on Upcoming Flight 

By Rachel Jewett | April 19, 2023

      A Rocket Lab Electron launch before the first stage comes back to Earth for an ocean landing and recovery. Photo: Rocket Lab/Business Wire

      Rocket Lab is planning to use a pre-flown Rutherford engine on an upcoming Electron mission, a milestone in the company’s work to make Electron a reusable rocket vehicle. 

      Rocket Lab announced Wednesday that the engine previously flown on the “There and Back Again” mission, will be used on an upcoming commercial mission scheduled for the third quarter of this year. 

      The first stage was recovered with parachutes using a helicopter during the May 2022 mission. Since then, it has gone through certification for re-flight, including multiple full mission duration hot fires. Rocket Lab said it performed “flawlessly” and had the performance of a new engine. 

      One challenge with Rocket Lab’s work to make Electron reusable is that the small Electron rockets don’t have room to carry enough propulsion to make a propulsive landing, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck commented. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, for example, does propulsive landing. 

      The launcher tested two Electron recovery methods, one of recovering the rocket in the ocean after splashdown, and the mid-air helicopter method. Rocket Lab’s analysis showed that the rockets can withstand ocean recovery, so the company plans to move forward with that as the primary recovery method and expects about 60-70% of missions to be eligible for recovery. 

      “We’re in this position thanks to our diligent engineers designing robust components and over-qualifying them from the outset of the Electron program to ensure reliability, setting them up well for reuse,” Beck commented in the release. “We look forward to continuing to rewrite the rules of small launch through reusability, while using the extensive data and experience we’re gathering along the way to inform the development of our Neutron rocket.” 

      After using the pre-flown Rutherford engine, Rocket Lab will assess using a complete pre-flown first stage booster.