With a total of 28 launches under its belt, the Electron rocket is something common for spaceflight enthusiasts nowadays. From the very beginning, this small satellite launch vehicle has set itself apart from its competitors for one very striking feature: its color.
When first introduced, Electron was considered “the dark theme rocket”, as the carbon fiber gives its skin a unique black color. However as time has passed, many slight changes in livery have taken place as RocketLab’s creation evolved towards reusability.
It’s now become easy to get lost between red stripes and silver coatings, so let’s dive into all the small changes that have taken place.
For most of its missions, Electron flies in its “baseline” configuration, with no reusability options: the launch vehicle is entirely black, save for white stripes just above the first stage engine pack and at the top and bottom of the second stage, and for the white ice that forms when the cryogenic liquid oxygen is loaded.
Not even ten flights had taken place before Peter Beck’s startup started implementing changes.
During flights 10 and 11 (“Running out of fingers” and “Birds of a feather”), the first stage was equipped with attitude control thrusters to control its orientation during re-entry. This helped collect data in preparation for actual recovery attempts. During these two flights, a few white patches joined RocketLab’s logo on the interstage, but not many aesthetic changes took place.
The following modifications made Electron’s first stage capable of surviving re-entry and splashing down in the ocean using a parachute. The rocket’s appearance reflected these changes: the three white stripes were made red, and the interstage white.
This much more colorful version flew three times on missions 16, 20, and 22, successfully coming back every time. Unrelated to the reusability tests, the 20th flight, “Running out of toes”, failed to deliver its payload due to problems with the second stage.
Red stripes also appeared on the 24th flight, “The owl’s night continues”, but only on the second stage. That’s because only the upper stage was equipped with reusability-related hardware, such as enhanced batteries to make up for the increased mass of a reusable first stage.
With those tests completed, RocketLab finally decided to test the whole recovery profile on the 26th flight, “There and back again”.This time the most evident feature was a silver coating designed better to protect the first stage from the heat of re-entry. Additionally, the first stage stripe and the interstage were red, and the upper stage stripes were silver. As recently has been seen, the recovery attempt almost succeeded, with the helicopter managing to catch the booster but immediately had to drop it.
Having seen what all the colors mean, let’s take a look at another, more subtle, visual difference that you might stumble upon.This time the focus is on the fairing, which is sometimes customized to fit the payload’s needs. During the two launches “The owl’s night begins” and “The owl’s night continues” the fairing had small bulges to accommodate the StriX-α and StriX-β Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites.
Four other flights (20, 22, 23, and 25) had a visibly longer fairing. This modification allowed to fit two BlackSky Earth observation satellites, stacked using a special adapter.
Despite what some might expect, even a small launcher like the Electron can sport many different variants. Considering that so far we’ve only seen testing of the new features and that flight opportunity seem to be plentiful, one can only imagine what more is to come.