Rocket Lab catches a falling rocket with a helicopter – and then throws it into the sea

Update May 2, 7:50 p.m. ET: Shortly after launch, Rocket Lab’s Electron fell back to Earth and deployed his parachutes as planned. It then came within sight of the company’s helicopter, which then successfully trapped the missile for a few brief moments. However, the helicopter pilot noticed “different load characteristics” that Rocket Lab had not experienced in previous tests.

“At his own discretion, the pilot dumped the stage for a successful splashdown, where it was recovered from our ship for transport back to our factory,” said Murielle Baker, a Rocket Lab communications officer, during the launch livestream. “However, the stage is in great condition and we look forward to reviewing it in detail when it’s back here at the factory.” The remainder of the launch proceeded as planned, with Rocket Lab on board all 34 satellites of the flight.

Original story: After nearly three years of preparation, small satellite launch company Rocket Lab will today try to catch one of its rockets in the air after launching the craft from New Zealand. If the rocket falls back to earth, Rocket Lab will use a helicopter to attempt to catch the booster just before it hits the ocean. This may allow the rocket to be launched again.

This will mark the first time Rocket Lab has attempted to capture one of its electron rockets with a helicopter, part of the company’s plan to recover and reuse its vehicles after launch. Until now, Electron – designed to launch small satellites into low Earth orbit – has been primarily a consumable rocket. Most of these missiles fall back to earth after each flight and are eventually destroyed.

But by capturing and reusing its rockets after flight, Rocket Lab hopes to reduce the manufacturing costs associated with building an entirely new rocket for each of its missions. The goal is similar to that of SpaceX, which has become famous for landing and reusing its rockets after flight. Rocket Lab also claims that salvaging and reusing its rockets could also help speed up its flight cadence. “Bringing one back saves a tremendous amount of time because you don’t have to build a whole new rocket from scratch,” says Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab The edge. “So obviously we’re going to see some good cost savings, but I think the most important thing for us right now is to just get the vehicles back on the production line.”

When Electron launches into space, computers on board the vehicle guide the booster back through Earth’s atmosphere, maneuvering it just right to keep it intact during the fall to the ground. Once the rocket reaches an altitude of about 8.3 miles, it deploys a drogue parachute to slow its fall, followed by a main parachute. As the rocket glides leisurely toward the ocean, the helicopter will arrive, attempting to snare the parachute’s line with a dangling hook to avoid crashing into the salty seawater.

Rocket Lab has been working on its recovery plan since 2019 when it announced that it would try to make its electron rockets reusable. The first major test took place in December 2019 when Rocket Lab tested its guidance and control system on Electron. For Rocket Lab, one of the most difficult parts of this entire process is guiding the electron’s fall through the atmosphere. “I think a lot of people think the hardest part is catching the rocket, and it’s certainly hard,” says Beck. “But from an engineering standpoint, the hardest part was making sure the rocket survived re-entry.” The rocket reaches speeds of more than 5,000 mph during its fall and must remain in one piece while scorching hot plasma builds up around the vehicle .

Rocket Lab has successfully launched intact electron rockets the ocean, and the company pulled three rockets out of the water to learn more about their journeys back to Earth. The company’s engineers were able to open the rockets and remove some of their components to be able to fly them again. rocket lab too demonstrated Electron’s ability to deploy his various parachutes after the start. And the company used a helicopter to capture a dummy missile in mid-air (although the fake booster didn’t fall out of space, but was instead released from another nearby helicopter).

Now Rocket Lab is merging all of those moves with its upcoming launch dubbed There and Back Again – a nod to the nature of flight and also a fitting homage to New Zealand, where The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were filmed. Even though the company has rehearsed each step, they still have to do them all together for a launch. “The other really logistical challenge is: Can you meet up in the middle of the ocean with a rocket under a parachute?” says Beck. “I mean, a few moments ago it was traveling at eight times the speed of sound.”

If the helicopter successfully captures Electron, the company will fly the booster back to New Zealand and unload it onto a truck. The missile could also be launched on a boat first if flying home is too difficult. Rocket Lab will then take a closer look at the vehicle to see how it went. Going forward, Rocket Lab will ultimately selectively decide which missions to restore. Salvaged flights require more onboard systems, meaning the vehicle cannot carry as much into space. Additionally, the path Electron takes to orbit will affect Rocket Lab’s decision to attempt a helicopter catch. “Some trajectories are not very suitable for recovery,” says Beck. “So not every vehicle will be 100 percent reusable. It will probably be 50 percent or more.”

But first, Rocket Lab must show it can use a helicopter to catch a falling rocket. The company has postponed the launch several times as it waits for ideal weather conditions. Now it’s “back and forth”. scheduled for launch at 6:35 p.m. ET, with the helicopter catch occurring sometime after the main parachute deploys about eight and a half minutes after launch. Rocket Lab communications director Morgan Bailey says the company will try to provide a live stream of the event and there will even be a camera on the helicopter’s capture line. However, the company warns that it will be difficult to stay connected consistently.

“Space is tough, but so is live TV” Bailey tweeted.

Update May 2, 4:50 p.m. ET: This post has been updated with additional information on how the booster can return home. Rocket Lab catches a falling rocket with a helicopter – and then throws it into the sea

Fry Electronics Team

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