EU pursuing a "rocket catcher" to chase down boosters in mid-flight

Example of what the DLR's rocket-catching aircraft might look like
Example of what the DLR's rocket-catching aircraft might look like
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Example of what the DLR's rocket-catching aircraft might look like
Example of what the DLR's rocket-catching aircraft might look like

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."

Source: DLR

The Bishop of D
In order for a booster stage to be recoverable, it needs wings and landing gear at an absolute minimum so it will be a rudimentary glider after separation. Why not simply incorporate 3 axis control, turn the stage into a drone and finish the job without the need for a separate recovery system?
F. Tuijn
@ The Bishop of D Because you then need engines and their fuel to be carried too. Much better to capture the rocket stage in the air and tow it to the spot from where it can make a landing without such complications. A probably unmanned subsonic tug should do the trick even, eventually, for the largest rocket stages. I'm impressed.
Will this be an Evel Knievel or 3 Stooges stunt? You decide. By all means, yes, save the booster, but didn't Elon's crew at SpaceX (and Blue Origin, too) already show you how to do that economically?
@F. Tuijn, no fuel or engines are required for a powerless glide back to earth in a controlled way with, as The Bishop of D suggests, 3-axis control. The space shuttle returned to earth without engines. It was just an expensive glider.
@ljaques, I'll go with 3 stooges, it all seems a bit silly and unnecessary and you're right, space X's way of doing it seems the best and most efficient.
With this system, you dont have to incoorporate special wings, legs and guidancesystems in to the rocketstage. Making it a lot less expensive and makes it a lot easier to make future developments on the rocketstages. The system could maybe even be used as an emergency-system.
NASA did a lot of design work on using a Rogallo wing that deployed after booster burn out. One I remember had beams that were hinged at the front and spar that folded. See NASA TND-1932 if you're interested.
They probably realize that SpaceX has the most economical way of recovery. Problem is they can't figure out how to do it.