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