New Zealand and U.S.-based aerospace company Rocket Lab announced that during its next Electron launch, a commercial rideshare mission currently scheduled for later this month, the company will attempt a mid-air helicopter capture of the Electron launch vehicle for the first time. This will further the company’s program to make Electron the first reusable orbital small launch vehicle.
Rocket Lab’s 26th Electron launch, the “There and Back Again” mission, has a 14-day launch window scheduled to commence on April 19, 2022. Electron will lift off from Pad A at Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula and will carry 34 payloads from different commercial operators to Earth’s low orbit.
When the Electron’s first stage returns from space after launch, a customized Sikorsky S-92 twin-engine helicopter will be ready to catch it. Around an hour before lift-off, Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will move into position in the capture zone, approximately 150 nautical miles (278 km) off New Zealand’s coast.
Shortly after the launch, the first and second stages of the rocket will separate, and the latter will continue on to orbit for payload deployment. The first stage will begin its descent back to Earth, reaching speeds of almost 8,300 km/h (5,150 mph). It will deploy a drogue parachute at 13 km (8.3 miles) altitude and the main parachute at around 6 km (3.7 miles) altitude to dramatically slow the stage to 36 km/h (22.3 mph).
Rocket Lab’s helicopter will then attempt to rendezvous with the returning stage and capture the parachute line via a hook. Once the stage is captured and secured, the helicopter will transport it back to the land, where Rocket Lab will conduct a thorough analysis of the stage and assess its suitability for reflight.
Rocket Lab has already carried out three successful recoveries of Electron’s first stage from the ocean on previous missions. The data recovered from these missions helped improve the rocket’s design, making it more resistant to the harsh re-entry environment. It also allowed the company to better prepare for its 26th Electron launch.
“Trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no easy feat; we’re absolutely threading the needle here, but pushing the limits with such complex operations is in our DNA,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “We expect to learn a tremendous amount from the mission as we work toward the ultimate goal of making Electron the first reusable orbital small sat launcher and providing our customers with even more launch availability.”