In a world first, Rocket Lab caught its Electron rocket as it fell from space, using a hook mounted on a helicopter, but then had to let it go
27 April 2022
, updated 3 May 2022
A US launch company achieved a historic first by catching a rocket falling back to Earth in mid-air using a helicopter, but the manoeuvre was only partially successful after the helicopter was forced to drop the rocket into the ocean below.
The company, Rocket Lab, caught one of its Electron rockets shortly after it launched from New Zealand’s Māhia peninsula at 2250 GMT on 2 May. The mission, dubbed “There and Back Again”, involved the small rocket delivering 34 satellites to Earth orbit, including one to monitor Earth’s light pollution, before its booster fell back to Earth and slowed its speed with a series of parachutes.
Around two and a half minutes after launching, the first and second stages of the rocket separated. After the latter continued to travel to orbit, the former fell back to Earth, reaching temperatures of 2400°C and speeds of more than 8000 kilometres per hour.
A Sikorsky S-92 helicopter then used a long cable to successfully hook the parachute of the first stage booster, which had slowed to a descent speed of around 35 kilometres per hour.
Despite an initially successful catch, the helicopter pilots recorded “different load characteristics” to previous capture tests and were forced to dump the rocket booster into the ocean below, where it was later recovered by ship. The original plan was for the booster to return to land without touching seawater, which can cause salt damage.
“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 last week. “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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