Rocket Lab plans to catch a falling rocket this month

Rocket Lab is a fast-growing commercial space company eager to match SpaceX’s roaring success.

Like its rival, Rocket Lab plans to build a reusable rocket system to lower the costs of its space missions that have so far put satellites into orbit for a range of private companies.

But the two companies differ significantly in their approach to missile recovery. While SpaceX has already nailed the landing process for its first-stage Falcon 9 booster, Rocket Lab has fished its own boosters out of the ocean. But now he’s gearing up for his first-ever helicopter attempt to grab a falling Electron booster from the sky.

Rocket Lab will attempt the feat during a commercial rideshare mission currently scheduled no earlier than April 19, with a modified Sikorsky S-92 helicopter attempting to capture the Electron’s 40-foot first stage just minutes after. launching from its facility in New Zealand.

The capture attempt will be about 240 miles off the New Zealand coast. The booster will use parachutes to slow the descent. This allows the helicopter to get close before deploying a specially designed grappling hook to hook the plumb line of the parachute and capture the booster. The helicopter will then transport the captured part to land, after which Rocket Lab will assess its suitability for use in another mission.

Two years ago, the company managed to pluck a dummy booster from the sky with a helicopter during a training mission.

A helicopter plucks a dummy booster from the sky during a test run by Rocket Lab in 2020. Rocket Lab

Commenting on the upcoming mission, Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, said: “We have made many successful helicopter captures using replica stages, conducted extensive parachute testing and successfully salvaged the first stage of Electron from the ocean during our 16th, 20th and 22nd missions. Now it’s time to put everything together for the first time and pluck Electron out of thin air.”

Beck added: “Trying to capture a missile as it falls back to Earth is not an easy feat, we are definitely threading the needle here… We expect to learn a huge amount from the mission as we work towards the ultimate goal of Electron is the first reusable orbital small satellite launch vehicle and offers our customers even more launch availability.”

Rocket Lab is also developing a more powerful two-stage rocket called Neutron, which is suitable not only for satellite deployment, but also for interplanetary missions and even manned spaceflight.

The new rocket will make its first orbital flight in 2024. In this case, however, Rocket Lab plans to land the first stage booster the same way SpaceX does with the Falcon 9, rather than grabbing it from the sky with a helicopter.

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