Rocket Lab uses a helicopter to catch a rocket falling from space
Rocket Lab has taken an important step forward in its efforts to recover its boosters for re-flight, today capturing its Electron first stage with a helicopter as it hurtled back toward Earth. The attempt didn't go entirely to plan with the booster promptly released into the ocean, but is being hailed as a significant achievement the company likens to "supersonic ballet."
The helicopter recovery technique being pursued by Rocket Lab is several years in the making, with the company first outlining such plans in 2019. In 2020 it successfully used a helicopter to catch a replica of its Electron first stage over the open ocean, and has simultaneously been working on ocean-based recovery methods where parachutes are used to control the descent of the rocket en route to a safe splashdown for recovery.
Today's mission, titled "There and Back Again," was the 26th launch of the Electron booster and the first ever attempt at a mid-air capture of it with a helicopter. The aircraft in question is a modified Sikorsky S-92 fitted with a hook, designed to wait in the "capture zone" as the booster returns to Earth and deploys its chute, allowing capture of the parachute line so the booster can be towed away for refurbishment.
This went mostly to plan after Electron delivered 34 satellites to orbit, used its reaction control system to re-orient itself for reentry and endured the extreme heat and pressure during descent. A drogue parachute was deployed followed by a large main parachute, with the chopper then snaffling the line at an altitude of 6,500 ft (1,980 m).
From here, things went a little off-script, with the helicopter pilot detecting different load characteristics to those experienced during testing, and releasing the booster for a splashdown in the ocean instead. The rocket was then collected by a recovery vessel and is headed to Rocket Lab's production facility for analysis.
“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly, so I am incredibly proud of the stellar efforts of our Recovery Team and all of our engineers who made this mission and our first catch a success. From here we’ll assess the stage and determine what changes we might want to make to the system and procedures for the next helicopter catch and eventual re-flight.”
A full replay of the mission webcast can be seen below.
Source: Rocket Lab