Thursday, May 19, 2022

Rocket Lab catches rocket booster mid-air with helicopter

Rocket Lab has successfully launched its 26th Electron mission, deploying 34 satellites and CubeSats to orbit from Launch Complex 1A on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand. Rocket Lab has now deployed a total of 146 satellites to orbit with the Electron launch vehicle.

The company named the recent mission “There And Back Again,” which also saw Rocket Lab completing a mid-air capture of the Electron booster with a helicopter for the first time. After launching to space, Electron’s first stage returned to Earth under a parachute. At 6,400 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.

This dramatic action is a part of the company’s effort to make Electron’s first stages reusable, an achievement that would increase launch frequency and reduce costs for small satellites. After the catch, the helicopter pilot detected different load characteristics than previously experienced in testing and offloaded the stage for a successful splashdown. The stage is being loaded onto Rocket Lab’s recovery vessel for transport back to the company’s production complex for analysis and assessment for re-flight as planned.

View from recovery helicopter of Electron booster returning to Earth under parachute after launch.
View from recovery helicopter of Electron booster returning to Earth under parachute after launch. Credit: Rocket Lab

The company successfully recovered Electron’s first stage after a controlled ocean splashdown on three recent missions, and it has caught falling dummy boosters with a helicopter during a series of drop tests. Like those missions, a reaction control system re-oriented the first stage to an ideal angle for re-entry during the “There And Back Again” mission, enabling the stage to service the incredible heat and pressure during its descent back to Earth.

A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometers of descent. “There And Back Again” is the first time a helicopter catch attempt was introduced to recovery operations, and this mission will inform future helicopter captures.

Among the payloads deployed were satellites designed to monitor light pollution, demonstrate space junk removal technologies, improve power restraints in small satellites, validate technology for sustainable satellite systems that can avoid collisions with untrackable space objects, enable internet from space, and build upon a maritime surveillance constellation.

“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “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.”

Rocket Lab’s next mission is scheduled for May 2022, with more details to be released in the coming days.

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