WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Using a helicopter to catch a falling rocket is such a complex task that Peter Beck likens it to a “supersonic ballet.”
Rocket Lab, the company founded by Beck, partially achieved the feat on Tuesday as it pushes to make its small Electron rockets reusable. But after briefly catching the exhausted rocket, a helicopter crew was quickly forced to release it for safety, and it fell into the Pacific Ocean where it was picked up by a waiting boat.
The California-based company regularly launches 18-meter (59-foot) rockets from New Zealand’s remote Mahia Peninsula to send satellites into space.
On Tuesday, the Electron rocket launched in the morning and sent 34 satellites into orbit before the main booster section began falling to Earth. His descent was slowed to about 10 meters (33 ft) per second by a parachute.
That’s when the helicopter crew sprang into action, hanging a long line with a hook under the helicopter to hook the parachute lines from the thruster. The crew grabbed the rocket but the load on the helicopter exceeded test and simulation parameters, so they jettisoned it again.
The rollercoaster of emotions was captured in a live stream of the event, with people in mission control cheering and clapping as the rocket was captured, only to let out a collective gasp and sigh about 20 seconds later .
Still, Beck hailed the mission as a success, saying almost everything went according to plan and that the unexpected charging issue was a small detail that would soon be fixed, a “nothing in the scheme of things”.
“They made a good catch. They just didn’t like the feel of the load,” Beck said of the helicopter crew during a post-launch conference call.
He said a detailed analysis should reveal the reasons for the discrepancy in load characteristics. He said he still hoped the company could salvage some or all of the spent rocket propellant, despite having been submerged in salt water, which they hoped to avoid.
Rocket Lab named its latest mission ‘There And Back Again’ – a reference to ‘The Hobbit’ film trilogy which was filmed in New Zealand.
The company described the brief midair capture at 1,980 meters (6,500 feet) by the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter as a milestone. He says making its rockets reusable will allow the company to increase the number of launches it performs and reduce costs. Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has designed the first reusable orbital rocket, the Falcon 9.