Space

Rocket Lab prepares its chopper to catch a returning booster in midair

Rocket Lab prepares its choppe...
Rocket Lab's modified Sikorsky helicopter that will be used to catch its rocket in midair
Rocket Lab's modified Sikorsky helicopter that will be used to catch its rocket in midair
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Rocket Lab has big plans when it comes to recovering its boosters
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Rocket Lab has big plans when it comes to recovering its boosters
As part of its real-world recovery strategy, the helicopter technique is the final phase of Rocket Lab's plan
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As part of its real-world recovery strategy, the helicopter technique is the final phase of Rocket Lab's plan
Rocket Lab's Electron booster stands on the launchpad during testing
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Rocket Lab's Electron booster stands on the launchpad during testing
Rocket Lab's modified Sikorsky helicopter that will be used to catch its rocket in midair
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Rocket Lab's modified Sikorsky helicopter that will be used to catch its rocket in midair
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Recycling has quickly become the name of the game in the world of commercial spaceflight, with SpaceX and Blue Origin making reusable launch systems the backbone of their pursuits in the area. Rocket Lab has rocket reusability aspirations of its own, and all going to plan will soon achieve a key milestone by collecting the first stage of its Electron booster in midair with a customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter.

Rocket Lab first laid out its plans around reusability in 2019, outlining a vision that involved recovering the first stage of its Electron booster after small satellite launches by air and by sea. As the rocket re-enters the atmosphere, parachutes are deployed to slow its descent as it plummets toward the ocean, and in the case of the ocean-based method, a recovery vessel then collects it from the water for refurbishment.

The company actually accomplished this for the first time in November 2020 and has continued refining the approach since. In parallel, it has been gathering data and fine-tuning the descent process with a view to recovering the rocket in a more audacious way. Also in 2020, Rocket Lab succeeded in using a helicopter to catch a replica of its Electron first-stage over the open ocean in New Zealand, but now is putting away the dummies to try its hand with the real thing.

As part of its real-world recovery strategy, the helicopter technique is the final phase of Rocket Lab's plan
As part of its real-world recovery strategy, the helicopter technique is the final phase of Rocket Lab's plan

Later this month, the Electron rocket will carry out its 26th launch, taking off from New Zealand to deliver 34 small satellites to orbit. Before lift-off, a modified Sikorsky S-92 will move into the "capture zone" around 150 nautical miles (277 km) offshore, ready and waiting for the first stage that will hurtle back toward the Earth at up to 8,300 km/h (5,150 mph).

Rocket Lab has big plans when it comes to recovering its boosters
Rocket Lab has big plans when it comes to recovering its boosters

At an altitude of 13 km (8.3 miles), Electron will deploy a smaller drogue parachute before then deploying a main parachute at around around 6 km (3.7 miles). This will slow the first stage to speeds of just 10 meters a second, or 36 km/h (22.3 mph), enabling the chopper to snaffle the parachute line with a hook. The captured rocket will then be carried back to land for analysis.

"Trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no easy feat, we’re absolutely threading the needle here, but pushing the limits with such complex operations is in our DNA," said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. "We expect to learn a tremendous amount from the mission as we work toward the ultimate goal of making Electron the first reusable orbital small sat launcher and providing our customers with even more launch availability.”

This first attempt at mid-air recovery will take place in late April, with the 14-day launch window scheduled to open on the 19th.

Source: Rocket Lab

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9 comments
9 comments
jeronimo
Rocket Lab are an amazing operation. Launching hi-tech rockets from sleepy farmland at the edge of no-where-land. I wish them the best of luck with this bold attempt to "catch a falling angel".

PB
Speaking as a pilot, the concept of trying to snag a booster that is descending at 30 feet per second is sheer fantasy, and the risk to the helicopter and its occupants is significant. The helicopter has to be positioned in a precise position and has a second of time in which to snag the booster. The booster trajectory will be varied by sheer winds, so an anticipated trajectory could vary significantly, taking the booster away from the waiting and positioned helicopter or, sadly, into the helicopter.
This system is risky and unreliable. Why not let the booster go into the ocean and pick it up from there?
FB36
Maybe the tech NASA used for Mars probes could also help?:
Parachute(s) slows it down & later a bunch of airbags get deployed before hitting the ground!?
guzmanchinky
A helicopter is certainly better at gently bringing something back to earth carefully but catching something like this must be very challenging.
Smokey_Bear
I hope they show come cool footage of this. While it may sound challenging, it really isn't. Plus the Helo will have time for multiple attempts at hooking it. I'd guess they will end up will the catch rate of around 98%,
Lamar Havard
Looks like Rocket Lab needs to steal Sheldon Cooper's notes from Elon.
itsKeef
? as a paracustist, with a deployed canopy, we try to avoid getting involved with rotary wing downdraught, from above and 'suction' from below...please explain how this will work safely.
ljaques
Give me one of Ahab's old black-powder fueled whale harpoon guns and I'll bring in one of those space whales. Put it right through the parachute suspension lines and catch it on the fall. I doubt they reuse those chutes, anyway. Easy peasy...not.
christopher
When this goes wrong, lots of people will be killed. A custom catch-drone would make more sense, with no risk.