EU pursuing a "rocket catcher" to chase down boosters in mid-flight
Historically, space launches are anything but cheap, but reusable rocket programs like those from SpaceX and Blue Origin promise to bring down the outlay in a big way (if they're not already). The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has kicked off a new three-year research project in a similar vein, with preparations underway to develop a "rocket catcher" that snaffles boosters in mid-air for reuse.
Called the FALCon project (Formation flight for in-Air Launcher 1st stage Capturing demonstration), the initiative is being carried out together with six international partners in the hopes of fostering a new generation of European launch vehicles that can be used time and time again. The objective here is to cut down on wastage and the cost of satellite launches.
According to the DLR, its researchers have spent several years working on concepts to retrieve rocket stages following a launch. And one that is gathering a bit of steam is a separate aircraft that would pursue the rocket through the air after lift off, grab a hold of it and return it to base.
"In the patented in-air capture process, a winged rocket stage is automatically captured by a transport aircraft while still in flight over the sea, and then towed back to the vicinity of its landing site," explains FALCon Project Leader Martin Sippel of the DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen. "The stage is released there and lands independently, rather like a glider."
By having it come down like a glider, DLR says the dimensions, weight and therefore the costs of the system can be reduced. It has already explored this technology through simulations and flight experiments using light, uncrewed aircraft, and will now build on this using small demonstrators for in-flight capture and towing tests.
The study kicked off in March and will take place over the coming three years, with the aim of developing a technical concept for a rocket catcher that is as "detailed as possible."