Rocket Lab's next reusable rocket mission will test a new heat shield

The launch is scheduled for May.

Rocket Lab

Back in November, New Zealand's Rocket Lab successfully tested a first stage recovery parachute system. The mission was one of three planned tests the company said would put it on the path of making its Electron rocket reusable. Next month, it will conduct the second of those tests after completing its 20th Electron launch of the year.

The Running Out of Toes mission will see an Electron rocket deliver two constellation satellites to orbit. After separating from its counterpart, the craft's booster stage will start making its way back to the surface of the planet. It's at this point that Rocket Lab hopes to validate its previous findings and test a new heat shield the company designed to protect Electron from temperatures as hot as 4,352 degrees Fahrenheit. The craft will enter the atmosphere engines first. It will deploy a drogue parachute first to slow its descent, followed by a circular one once it's closer to the surface of the ocean. If all goes according to plan, a ship will retrieve the vehicle about 403 miles off the coast from Rocket Lab's Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

"The Return to Sender mission proved we could successfully bring Electron back from space. Now it's about validating re-entry data a second time and starting to introduce the advanced systems that will enable us to launch, catch and repeat," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.

The company's eventual recovery plan for Electron is to employ helicopters to catch the rockets in midair. Last April, it showed off what that would look like, with a test that saw one helicopter drop a dummy rocket from 8,000 feet above the ocean only for another one to catch it 3,000 feet below. Meanwhile, its forthcoming Neutron rocket will feature a fully reusable first stage that can land on an ocean platform.