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Rocket Lab says it just used a helicopter to grab a rocket booster as it fell to Earth

In a mission called ‘There and Back’, the 25-year-old space company managed to capture a falling rocket booster from a helicopter in midair after a launch for the first time.

About 15 minutes after launch, cheers were heard on the livestream as the first-stage booster, which provides the initial liftoff thrust but detaches after expended fuel and deploying parachutes on its descent, appeared to be caught trapped by the hook helicopter.

It is not yet clear if the rocket booster has returned to dry land safely. The company said it would give further updates just before 8 p.m. ET.

“It requires extreme precision. Several critical steps must align perfectly to ensure a successful capture,” Murielle Baker, Senior Communications Advisor

The Electron rocket, Rocket Lab’s small rocket capable of launching objects into Earth orbit, lifted off at 6:50 p.m. ET (10:50 a.m. local time) in New Zealand for a commercial mission. The mission deployed 34 satellite payloads for a number of commercial operators, bringing the total number of satellites launched by Electron into space to 146. Rocket Lab has completed 25 launches with 3 failures since 2018.

Rocket boosters are used to push payloads through Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit, and on this Rocket Lab launch, the booster was jettisoned after the first two and a half minutes of flight.

After separating from the booster, the Electron rocket continued to orbit to perform the satellite deployment as the booster fell back to Earth at nearly 5150 miles per hour. Once close enough to Earth’s surface, the booster deployed parachutes to slow its descent. A helicopter was waiting to hook the booster parachute with a hook.

Catching the rocket booster in the air is a big part of Electron’s end goal: reusable rockets. By reusing Electron’s first stage rocket booster, Rocket Lab (RKLB) aims to reduce the cost of rocket launches by eliminating the high cost of building or purchasing new rocket components with each launch.
Other companies have used reusable rockets to make space business more profitable. In 2015, Blue Origin was the first company to land a reusable rocket on an airstrip. The company said the future of space tourism and people living on other planets will depend on reusable transportation after sending founder Jeff Bezos into space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX uses reusable boosters in its Falcon 9 rockets.
Rocket Lab, however, says it has other reasons to focus on reuse than just profit. “Our biggest problem is building rockets fast enough to support all of our customers,” Beck told CNN Business in 2019. Rocket Lab wants to launch satellite payloads more frequently — 50 or more times a year. This kind of volume requires the reuse of rockets.

NASA has recovered spent rocket boosters from the Atlantic Ocean after a space shuttle launch. Rocket Lab plans to pursue the helicopter technique to retrieve its boosters. The company said Electron was not large enough to carry the fuel supply needed for a vertical landing, and landing in salt water sea can cause corrosion and physical damage.

A custom Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, a large twin-engine helicopter typically used for search and rescue missions and offshore oil and gas transport, was used on Monday grab. Following the successful capture of the thruster, the company planned to fly the machinery to an offshore recovery vessel before heading to the company’s production complex for evaluation.

The launch was postponed several times due to weather conditions. “For our first in-flight helicopter capture, we want ideal weather conditions so we can focus on capturing,” Rocket Lab said. tweeted Monday. “Just as our weather tolerances for launch have increased over time, our tolerance for weather conditions in the recovery zone will also increase. For this first one though, we want to eliminate weather as a consideration so we can just focus on the capture and support operations.”
The California-based company also released a video showing a successful practice session in the days leading up to launch, with a helicopter capturing a dummy booster as it fell to the ground.

Rocket Lab has already fished boosters from the ocean in three of Electron’s previous 25 missions. It was the first attempt at taking flight.

This isn’t the first time humans have attempted to catch an object falling from space with an airplane. During the 1960s, the United States used aircraft equipped with long hooks to catch film canisters containing spy satellite footage out of the skies. The Cold War-era technique was similar to one attempted by Rocket Lab: the film canister was dropped to Earth from space and used parachutes to slow its descent so planes could retrieve the information. NASA also attempted in 2004 to seize a capsule in flight carrying samples of particles that had flowed from the sun, but the attempt to recover the helicopter failed when the capsule’s parachutes failed to release. which caused it to crash land in the Utah desert.

Since its inception in 2006, Rocket Lab has deployed satellites into orbit for clients including NASA, the US Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office and Canon.




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