Rocket Lab launched and recovered one of its first stage Electron boosters mid-air using an ahelicopter in a world first.
The historic accomplishment marks the first time a rocket first stage was ever captured with a helicopter. It is also the second company after SpaceX to retrieve a booster for reuse.
The task, called "There and Back Again," went almost entirely according to plan, although the helicopter pilots did drop the booster into the sea shortly after capture, as they were wary about the way the load handled in mid-air.
"In a press statement, repurposing a rocket from space and touching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet."
The "There and Back Again" mission at Rocket Lab has successfully launched 34 small commercial satellites to orbit for paying customers.
On Monday, May 2, the first stage of the Electron booster used for the launch, which took off from Launch Complex 1A on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand at roughly 6:48 PM EDT, was a main draw for rocket enthusiasts.
Electron lifts-off for #ThereAndBackAgain! Only mins later this booster came back to Earth under parachute & was caught by ouras planned. The stage was then offloaded for an ocean splashdown & collection by our recovery vessel. This is a major step forward for our recovery program! pic.twitter.com/KNISJ0hFMz
A booster from the private space company released two parachutes as it advanced to Earthat about 5,000 mph. This reduced its descent to a speed of 22 mph, shoving it insufficient for the helicopter capture.
It''s exactly what it was from the front seats. pic.twitter.com/AwZfuWjwQD
As the booster made its way down to sea level, Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck shared video footage from the inside of theSikorsky-92 helicopter used to capture the Electron booster.
Rocket Lab has confirmed that the recovery helicopter had been sent to the Electron booster over the Pacific Ocean 15 minutes after being launched from New Zealand. It''s a significant step in the company''s rocket reuse efforts. https://t.co/a8688Hvd0L pic.twitter.com/lMiAJ9gGJf
The helicopter swooped in and scouted the Electron booster using a specially designed grappling hook, which had been tested on several practice sessions prior to the May 2 launch.
The world-class helicopter rocket capture is performed by the Rocket Lab.
The catch was successful, although the pilots were not able to land the booster as planned. Shortly after the mission, Beck congratulated the recovery team, saying, "It was incredible" and that the pilots got it. They did release it after hookup as they were unhappy with the way it was flying, but no big deal, the rocket went down safely and the ship is loading it now."
Beck addressed the pilot''s press briefing following the launch that the helicopter caught the Electron first stage at an altitude of 6,500 feet and reiterated that it was then jettisoned shortly afterward because the helicopter pilots weren''t satisfied with the handling of the load as compared to previous dummy test flights.
The CEO of Rocket Lab said he is confident the space company will resolve the issue, and he hopes it will be able to reuse the booster that was then loaded onto a drone ship with a crane.
Beck on Twitter has also mentioned that the Electron booster''s heat shielding, which was specifically designed for this mission, performed its job, as it prevented the stage from burning up as it made its descent through the Earth''s atmosphere.
Heat shield did its job excellent. pic.twitter.com/F2KZrnt9Gq
The helicopter pilots decided to deploy the booster once more, but the parachutes slowed its descent, permettant it to make a controlled splashdown.
Rocket Lab plans to utilize the mid-air capture technique in future deployments, reducing the costs of its satellite launch services. In a recent press statement, Becksaid, "trying to catch a rocket as it returns to Earth is no easy feat; here we''re absolutely threading the needle, but pushing the limits with such complex operations is in our DNA."
The next major milestone for the California and New Zealand-based company is the launch of its larger Neutron rocket, which will be fully reusable and will be powered by an innovative Hungry Hippo payload fairing.