If you had five years to make a list of hypothetical space activities, I don't think you'd have enough time to imagine a helicopter catching a rocket as it fell back to Earth.
But that is exactly what New Zealand-based Rocket Lab did this week in a bid to make their rockets reusable.
Re-usability has been a huge focus of space over the past few decades. By reusing components, it ultimately brings down the cost, and for space, the name of the game is price. So far, no entire fully re-usable system has been created, but groups are getting close, through creative engineering.
Visions of the giant Saturn V launching the Apollo capsule and crew into space on a journey to the Moon is ingrained in our minds. However, none of the components - from the rocket, to the lander, to the capsule when it came back, were reusable. They were all built each time, and either turned into space junk, fell to the bottom ocean, went to a museum, or were left on the moon.
Imagine you buy a new car ... When you run out of fuel or charge, you go to a car dealer, buy a new car and start over. This has been the way of space.
Imagine you buy a new car with a full tank of petrol or full battery charge. You drive it and when you run out of fuel or charge, you leave it on the side of the road. go to a car dealer, buy a new car and start over.
This is not efficient or cost-effective, yet this has been the way of space.
The Space Shuttle was designed and envisioned to be a big step towards solving this. The original idea was that buy building a reusable space vehicle, it would be cheap to operate and could go up often, about once a month if not more.
The Space Shuttle did end up being reusable. It would go into space, come down and land, and then be inspected and sent back up into space. However, the Space Shuttle needed boosters (the two white rockets on the side), and a large fuel tank (the orange tank) to get into space. These bits were not reusable, and ended up as junk.
It also meant that this contributed to complexity and cost, and so the Space Shuttle wasn't that cheap. In fact, it cost NASA about $1.5 billion per launch for the Space Shuttle.
Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have taken the next leap into making reusable systems. Their rockets go up, send the satellite or humans into space, and come back down and land. This has been a huge step in progress, by building components in the rocket itself to land. Until these groups, this has not really been done before. Not only are their rockets reusable, but their capsules, like the SpaceX Dragon capsule, land safely and are re-used. By making more components re-usable, it makes it cheaper.
SpaceX has even tried to capture the fairing, the protective cover around the satellites as it goes up, saving millions each time they catch it.
Having Rocket Lab send a helicopter, and play a giant space arcade style game of catching the booster as it comes down, will make it even cheaper for them. All by employing a unique and simple way. This ultimate makes it cheaper for the satellites, and therefore the consumer.
It used to cost about $50,000 per kilogram to put something into space on the Space Shuttle. This got cheaper, around the $10,000- $20,000 per kg range with more modern rockets. With improvements like SpaceX and Rocket Lab, we are now around $1,000 per kilogram, headed soon to the few hundred dollars range.
Re-usability means cheap.
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