We’ve all marveled at SpaceX’s incredible ability to land a booster back on Earth shortly after lift-off, but Rocket Lab — another company in the business of building a reusable rocket system — has an altogether different approach when it comes to recovering launch equipment.
The small-satellite launch service wants to pluck the first stage of its Electron rocket out of the sky using a helicopter that then brings it safely back to terra firma.
It sounds like an extraordinary idea, but the California-based company recently nailed the maneuver in a practice run using a dummy rocket.
The March 2020 test took place off the coast of New Zealand, home of Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck. In the video below, you can see the dummy rocket falling to Earth, slowed by a parachute. A helicopter then closes in on the rocket part at about 5,000 feet to perform a mid-air capture using a specially designed grappling hook to snag the parachute’s drogue line.
After capturing the part, the helicopter flies it back to base.
Beck set up Rocket Lab in 2006 as a small-satellite launcher for customers that have so far included NASA and DARPA, among others. To date it’s deployed 48 satellites via 10 launches, but it still needs to find a way of recovering its first-stage booster. A reliable and reusable rocket system enables a space company to significantly cut operating costs as it eliminates the need to invest in new boosters, which in turn paves the way for more frequent launches that help to lower overall costs even further.
“Electron has already unlocked access to space for small satellites, but every step closer to reusability is a step closer to even more frequent launch opportunities for our customers,” Beck said in a message following the test.
In two recent missions in December 2019 and January 2020, Rocket Lab successfully completed guided re-entries of Electron’s first stage, a vital part of the process to steady the rocket in readiness for the catching maneuver.
“Both stages on those missions carried new hardware and systems to enable recovery testing, including guidance and navigation hardware, S-band telemetry, and onboard flight computer systems, to gather data during the stage’s atmospheric re-entry,” Rocket Lab said.
Following further testing, the company will attempt to catch its Electron rocket as part of a regular mission, though no date has been set for the feat. In the meantime, it plans to recover first stages from splashdowns in the ocean.
Rocket Lab has said that in the coming years its technology will enable the deployment of thousands of small satellites for gathering data that will help scientists to “better monitor our planet and manage our impact on it,” adding that satellites launched using its Electron rocket will perform “vital social and commercial services, including monitoring deforestation, global internet from space, improved weather prediction, and crop monitoring.”
You can learn more about Rocket Lab in a recent Digital Trends article in which Peter Beck talks about his company’s work and ambitions.