rocket lab catches mid-air rocket

Helicopter catches and drops falling rocket mid-air in reusability test

Image credit: reuters

The space firm Rocket Lab has managed to catch a rocket falling back to Earth in mid-air as part of a cost-saving demonstration for its satellite launch services.

The feat, which is designed to demonstrate the reusability of its rockets, took place following a mission that saw the deployment of 34 satellites in orbit

After launching to space, the Electron rocket’s first stage was returned to Earth under a parachute during which it was captured by a helicopter using a hook on a long line to snag the parachute line.

However, after the catch, the helicopter pilot detected different load characteristics from those previously experienced, and dropped the rocket for safety reasons.

The stage is now being loaded onto Rocket Lab’s recovery vessel for transport back to the company’s production complex for analysis and assessment for re-flight as planned.

The firm’s technology is competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has also created reusable rockets that are capable of landing back on Earth to be used for another mission.

The mid-air capture comes after successful recovery operations from various other Rocket Lab launches which saw Electron’s first stage execute a controlled ocean splashdown before being returned to Rocket Lab’s production complex.

Like those missions, a reaction control system re-oriented the first stage to an ideal angle for re-entry, enabling the stage to survive the incredible heat and pressure during its descent back to Earth.

A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilise the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometres of descent.

“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.”

The mission brings the total number of satellites launched by Rocket Lab to 146. Among the payloads deployed were satellites designed to monitor light pollution, demonstrate space junk removal technologies, improve power restraints in small satellites, validate technology for sustainable satellite systems that can avoid collisions with untrackable space objects, enable internet from space, and build upon a maritime surveillance constellation.

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