Watch: Helicopter 'catches' falling rocket for first time
One day soon, rockets used to launch vehicles into space could be re-used far more easily - after a hi-tech company daringly ‘caught’ a booster falling back to Earth.
The Rocket Lab company helicopter grabbed a booster with a helicopter as it parachuted down - although the pilots then released it for a splashdown into the sea.
The company hopes to make it easier to reuse parts of launch vehicles - and make small satellite launches cheaper.
Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck said, “Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet.
“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 deployed 34 satellites to orbit using the Electron launch vehicle.
After launching to space, Electron’s first stage returned to Earth under a parachute.
At 6,500 ft, Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter rendezvoused with the returning stage and used a hook on a long line to capture the parachute line.
The mid-air capture is a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites.
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The mid-air capture comes after successful recovery operations from Rocket Lab’s 16th, 20th, and 22nd missions, which saw Electron’s first stage execute a controlled ocean splashdown before being returned to Rocket Lab’s production complex.
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 descent.
The mission was the first time a helicopter catch attempt was introduced to recovery operations and today’s mission will inform future helicopter captures.