Rocket Lab says it just used a helicopter to catch a rocket booster as it plummeted back to Earth


In a mission labeled “There and Back Again,” the 25-year-old space company successfully performed a mid-air helicopter capture of a falling rocket booster after a launch for the first time.

About 15 minutes after launch, cheers were heard on the livestream as the first-stage booster, which provides the initial thrust at liftoff but detaches after expending its fuel and deployed parachutes on its descent, appeared to be ensnared by the hook-wielding helicopter.

It’s not yet clear if the rocket booster made it all the way back to dry land safely. The company said it would give further updates just before 8 pm ET.

“It demands extreme precision. Several critical milestones need to align perfectly to ensure a successful capture,” Murielle Baker, senior communications advisor

The Electron rocket, Rocket Lab’s small rocket capable of launching objects into Earth’s orbit, took off at 6:50 pm ET (10:50 am local time) in New Zealand for a commercial mission. The mission deployed 34 satellite payloads for a number of commercial operators, bringing the total number of Electron-launched satellites in space to 146. Rocket Lab has conducted 25 launches with 3 failures since 2018.

Rocket boosters are used to push payloads up through the Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit, and in this Rocket Lab launch, the booster was jettisoned after the first two and a half minutes of flight.

After separating from the booster, the Electron rocket continued to orbit to fulfill the satellite deployment while the booster fell back to Earth at nearly 5150 miles per hour. Once near enough to the Earth’s surface, the booster deployed parachutes to slow its descent. A helicopter waited to snag the booster’s parachute with a hook.

Catching the rocket booster mid-air is a big part of Electron’s eventual goal: reusable rockets. By reusing the Electron’s first-stage rocket booster, Rocket Lab (RKLB) aims to reduce the cost of rocket launches by eliminating the steep cost of building or purchasing new rocket components with every launch.
Other companies have used reusable rockets as a way to make the space business more cost effective. In 2015, Blue Origin was the first company to land a reusable rocket on a landing pad. The company said that the future of space tourism and people living on other planets would depend on reusable transport after sending founder Jeff Bezos to space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX uses reusable boosters in its Falcon 9 rockets.
Rocket Lab, however, says it has other reasons for focusing on reusability than just profit. “Our biggest problem is building rockets fast enough to support all our customers,” Beck told CNN Business in 2019. Rocket Lab wants to launch satellite payloads more frequently — 50 times or more a year. That kind of volume requires rocket reuse.

NASA has retrieved spent rocket boosters from the Atlantic Ocean after a Space Shuttle launch. Rocket Lab plans to pursue the helicopter technique to recover its boosters. The company has said Electron is not large enough to carry the fuel supply needed for an upright landing, and a saltwater ocean landing can cause corrosion and physical damage.

A customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, a large twin-engine chopper usually used for search and rescue missions and offshore oil and gas transportation, was used in Monday’s grab. After the successful capture of the booster, the company planned to fly the machinery to an at-sea recovery vessel before moving to the company’s production complex for assessment.

The launch was postponed several times due to weather conditions. “For our first mid-air helicopter capture, we want ideal weather conditions so we can focus on the catch,” Rocket Lab tweeted on Monday. “Just like our weather tolerances for launch have increased over time, so will our tolerance for weather in the recovery zone. For this first one though, we want to eliminate weather as a consideration so we can focus solely on the catch and supporting operations.”
The California-based company also released a video showing a successful practice run in the days leading up to launch, with a helicopter capturing a dummy booster as it fell to the ground.

Rocket Lab has previously fished boosters from the ocean in three of Electron’s 25 earlier missions. This was the first attempt at a mid-air catch.

This isn’t the first time humans have attempted to catch an object falling from space with aircraft. During the 1960s, the United States would use planes equipped with long hooks to grab film canisters containing film from spy satellites out of the sky. The Cold War-era technique was similar to the one attempted by Rocket Lab: the film canister fell to Earth from outer space and used parachutes to slow its descent so that planes could nab the intel. NASA also attempted in 2004 a mid-air grab of a capsule carrying samples of particles that had streamed off the sun, but the helicopter recovery attempt failed when the capsule’s parachutes failed to release, causing it to crash into the Utah desert.

Since its start in 2006, Rocket Lab has deployed satellites to orbit for customers including NASA, the US Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and Canon.

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