U.S.-based satellite launch provider Rocket Lab used a helicopter to snag a used rocket booster in midair during a launch Monday, a maneuver the company says brings it closer to developing the first fully reusable small satellite launcher.
Rocket Lab’s Electron spacecraft took off around 6:50 p.m. ET from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, carrying 34 satellites from clients used to gather light pollution data, monitor radio signals from sea vessels and test space junk removal technology, among other functions.
About two minutes after takeoff, having expended its fuel, the Electron’s stage-one booster detached and fell back toward Earth, slowing its 5,150-mile-per-hour descent with a parachute.
But instead of landing in the ocean, the booster was caught about 150 nautical miles off the New Zealand coast around 7:07 p.m. ET by a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter that used a hook to grab the booster’s parachute line, a maneuver that Rocket Lab had rehearsed by dropping a booster from one helicopter and catching it with another helicopter.
The booster will next be transported to Rocket Lab’s Auckland production complex for analysis, the company said.
Rocket Lab’s midair recovery project is part of an endeavor to make Electron the first reusable small satellite launcher. Catching the booster while it’s still in the air avoids “splashdown” into the ocean, which exposes boosters to potentially damaging impacts at sea and subsequent exposure to saltwater. This will enable Rocket Lab to make more frequent launches, the company said. The Electron is already one of the most prolific small satellite launchers, having put 146 satellites into orbit over 26 launches since 2017, the company said. Monday’s launch included a solar satellite by New Zealand’s Astrix Astronautics and satellites by U.S. startup E-Space meant to showcase technology for avoiding collisions with untracked space debris. Several satellites included in the launch were tiny “picosatellites,” weighing less than 2.2 pounds apiece.
What To Watch For
Rocket Lab said it plans to build the Neutron, a reusable rocket that would be able to return to the launch pad after takeoff, at the company’s Wallops Island, Virginia, facility. The company hopes to launch the first Neutron in 2024.
Rocket Labs whimsically dubbed the New Zealand-based booster recovery mission “There And Back Again,” an allusion to J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Tolkien’s works are popularly associated with New Zealand, which served as the main shooting location for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films.
“These Satellites Aim To Both Securely Communicate And Clean Up Space Junk—And They’re Launching This Year” (Forbes)