Image of a rocket leaving the launch pad.
Enlarge / What went up…


The small satellite launch company RocketLab made its first successful recovery of its Electron rocket after it had sent a collection of payloads toward orbit. While this rocket itself isn’t going to be reused, the company expects that it will get valuable data from sensors that returned to Earth with the vehicle. The satellite launch was a success as well, an important validation after the loss of seven satellites earlier this year.

As an added bonus, the company sent a garden gnome to space for charity.

One small step

The launch took place from the company’s facility on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula and in many respects was uneventful. The countdown went off without a hitch, the second stage took the payloads to orbit, and the kicker vehicle distributed the satellites to individual orbits. But things got a bit more complicated as the second stage separated, with engineers immediately starting to calculate the likely location where the first stage would return to earth—or, more accurately, ocean.

The launch, which RocketLab named “Return to Sender,” was the first in which the company was attempting to bring the stage down gently and recover it. Reusable vehicles weren’t initially part of RocketLab’s plans; as its CEO said during the company’s launch webcast, the Electron rocket is much smaller than SpaceX’s Falcon, and “you don’t have the propellant margins on a small launch vehicle” to handle a fully powered landing. But analysis of the rocket’s performance during the first few launches, as well as sensor readings of the stresses placed on the hardware, had suggested a more limited return plan might be possible.

Has come down.

So the company came up with a plan that would see the rocket reorient with some maneuvering engines before plunging into the atmosphere, slowed by a small drogue parachute. Once deeper into the atmosphere, it would deploy a full-sized parachute, slowing it sufficiently to be snagged by a helicopter. Return to Sender didn’t test the full process, but it was the first in which RocketLab would attempt to deploy the parachute to facilitate a gentle splashdown and recovery. This would allow the company to get detailed readings of the stresses and temperatures that the Electron experienced during reentry.

While the livestream of the mission cut out before the splashdown took place, the company released a statement indicating that the rocket had been successfully recovered and posted posted photographic evidence to its Twitter feed.

Student projects and a charitable gnome

While all that was happening, the mission’s payloads were heading for their five final orbits. One is a bit of test hardware, two others are small ocean traffic monitoring satellites, and another is a collection of 24 small communication satellites. The final payload was from the University of Auckland and represents the first student project from New Zealand to reach space.

But one final bit of payload won’t be remaining in orbit. RocketLab is terming it a “mass simulator,” but it’s a 3D-printed titanium garden gnome named Gnome Chompski, modeled on an item from the Half-Life game series. In the game, the goal was to sneak the gnome onto a rocket and send it to space. Supposedly, it was being sent to test the performance of 3D printed hardware during the rigors of launch. But in reality it was an excuse for Valve’s Gabe Newell to donate money to charity—one dollar to anyone who watched the livestream within the first day. So far, Gnome Chompski’s launch has raised over $80,000 for the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland.