Space

Rocket Lab uses a helicopter to catch a rocket falling from space

Rocket Lab uses a helicopter t...
Rocket Lab's Electron booster lifts off on a mission for the 26th time
Rocket Lab's Electron booster lifts off on a mission for the 26th time
View 3 Images
Rocket Lab's recovery helicopter ahead of the "There and Back Again" mission
1/3
Rocket Lab's recovery helicopter ahead of the "There and Back Again" mission
View from Rocket Lab's chopper as it prepares to capture the Electron booster and parachute
2/3
View from Rocket Lab's chopper as it prepares to capture the Electron booster and parachute
Rocket Lab's Electron booster lifts off on a mission for the 26th time
3/3
Rocket Lab's Electron booster lifts off on a mission for the 26th time
View gallery - 3 images

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.

Rocket Lab's recovery helicopter ahead of the "There and Back Again" mission
Rocket Lab's recovery helicopter ahead of the "There and Back Again" mission

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).

View from Rocket Lab's chopper as it prepares to capture the Electron booster and parachute
View from Rocket Lab's chopper as it prepares to capture the Electron booster and parachute

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.

Rocket Lab - 'There And Back Again' Launch

Source: Rocket Lab

View gallery - 3 images
4 comments
4 comments
FB36
Why not attach a bunch of airbags to the rocket (each time) before sending it to space (just like NASA did for sending vehicles to Mars) & so it can safely land almost anywhere?
Username
I have no doubt that they will eventually master their maneuver but it will never make much sense to me.
Daishi
@FB36 Earth gravity is higher than the moon or Mars and like launching a rocket there are probably restrictions on where you can land one too. You can slow it with a parachute but it's not controlled enough to drop it on land near people. You can parachute it into the ocean but salt water is terrible and you don't want it in the water. I suppose if the airbags were like a built in raft you could prevent it from getting wet when landing? There are some tricks that could be used to slow it more before "splashing" too like expanding the parachute size near the surface or reeling in some of the parachute line just before impact. I can see some issues that would make that difficult. The rocket would just fall over unless landed on the side so deploying the (huge) raft would be hard and rockets aren't really designed for side loads. Using a helicopter to catch it is interesting but that wouldn't be possible with large rockets. SpaceX seems to have the best approach here.
dls
That sounds like close, but not success.