Rocket Lab caught a Stage 1 rocket with a helicopter

By now, SpaceX has become incredibly proficient when it comes to not only launching its spacecraft but landing its rockets as well. Now another spacefaring company has successfully recovered a rocket following a launch.

That company is Rocket Lab and on Tuesday it launched its Electron “There And Back Again” mission to launch 34 satellites into orbit. The mission launched from the firm’s Launch Complex 1 located in the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. This a test to see if Rocket Lab could catch the first stage of its rocket before it met the Earth with a bang.

The recovery attempt took a different approach to that which SpaceX uses. Where SpaceX lands its rockets, Rocket Lab caught its rocket in mid air using its Sikorsky S-92 helicopter.

Following Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) the first stage separated from the spacecraft and began its descent back to Earth. The rocket was then angled so as to protect it from the extreme heat and pressure it experiences during its descent and eventually a drogue parachute is deployed to slow the rocket down even more.

At this stage a helicopter is able to rendezvous with the rocket, catch it using a hook on a long line and take it back to Rocket Lab HQ. Unfortunately, this time around the rocket had to be released as the pilot experienced anomalies they didn’t during testing and the rocket was dropped into the ocean. The rocket was then loaded onto a recovery vessel and will be transported back to Rocket Lab for analysis and assessment for re-flight.

“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” explains Rocket Lab chief executive officer, 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,” Beck added.

In the video below you can watch the launch as well as see the capture of the rocket in mid-air, sort of. The actual catch happens off camera but the cheers from crew members on the ground make it apparent the rocket was caught.

Rocket Lab has yet another mission schedule for later this month though it hasn’t revealed those details just yet. Hopefully it uses that mission to test this technique once more and hopefully we get a better view of the catch.

As mentioned you can see that moment in the video below at around the 51 minute mark.

[Image – Rocket Lab]


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