Rocket Lab is about to try catching a falling rocket with a helicopter

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In a world first, Rocket Lab will attempt to catch its Electron rocket as it falls from space, using a hook mounted on a helicopter


27 April 2022

Captured rocket

An artist’s impression of a captured Electron rocket

Rocket Lab

A US launch company is about to attempt a historic first: catching a rocket falling back to Earth in mid-air using a helicopter.

The company, Rocket Lab, will attempt the feat from 2235 GMT on 28 April, weather permitting, with one of its Electron rockets launched from New Zealand’s Māhia peninsula. The mission, dubbed “There and Back Again”, will see the small rocket carry 34 satellites to Earth orbit, including one to monitor Earth’s light pollution.

Two and a half minutes after launching, the first and second stages of the rocket will separate. While the latter continues to travel to orbit, the former will fall back to Earth, reaching temperatures of 2400°C and speeds of more than 8000 kilometres per hour. It will then deploy a parachute to slow its descent to just over 35 kilometres per hour, before entering a “capture zone” above the Pacific Ocean.

Here, a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter operated by Rocket Lab will attempt to latch on to the parachute with a hook, with the capture expected about 18 minutes after launch. If successful, it will then transport the rocket back to land, possibly to be reused on a future mission.

“Trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no easy feat,” Rocket Lab’s CEO, Peter Beck, said in a statement. “We’re absolutely threading the needle here.”

At 18 metres tall, the Electron rocket is relatively small, about a quarter of the size of SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Yet Rocket Lab hopes to follow in the footsteps of Elon Musk’s company by making its rockets reusable to reduce launch costs, albeit via mid-air capture rather than landing on the ground or floating barges.

Rocket Lab has already practiced parachuting its rockets back into the ocean on previous launches, incurring salt damage that made them unable to be reused, and recently captured a dummy rocket with its helicopter.

Mid-air capture has been attempted before, perhaps most infamously with NASA’s Genesis spacecraft in 2004, which failed to deploy its parachute and crash-landed in the Utah desert, damaging its priceless samples of solar wind.

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