Science

Epic catch! Rocket Lab caught a falling booster from a helicopter after launching 34 satellites

Rocket Lab just did something we’ve never seen before.

Rocket Lab sent 34 satellites into orbit today (May 2) with its two-stage Electron launch vehicle, which lifted off from the company’s New Zealand site at 6:49 pm EDT (22:49 GMT). Impressive enough, but unprecedented, was the downward movement.

Having sent the satellites on their way, the first stage of the Electron returned to Earth by parachute. Approximately 15 minutes after launch, as the launch vehicle was gliding toward the Pacific Ocean, a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter approached it sideways and hooked the parachute line. If all goes according to plan, the helicopter will take the booster to the rescue ship, which will take the equipment back to solid ground for inspection and analysis.

“Absolutely incredible stuff out there!” This was stated by Rocket Lab Senior Communications Advisor Muriel Baker during today’s webcast. “We successfully caught the Electron booster under a parachute!”

Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photo)

Rocket Lab Electron rocket launches at

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launches as part of the Round trip mission on May 2, 2022. The rocket delivered 34 satellites to low Earth orbit. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)

The dramatic move is part of Rocket Lab’s effort to make Electron’s first stages reusable, reducing costs and increasing launch frequency, the company said.

Space fans are already familiar with reusable rockets thanks to SpaceX, which routinely lands and launches the first stages of its Falcon 9 rocket (as well as the Falcon Heavy, which has only launched three times to date). The Falcon 9’s first stages land propulsively, using the engine to guide itself towards a soft vertical landing on land or “drone” platforms at sea.

But at 59 feet (18 meters) high, Electron is too small for that; Rocket Lab officials said the first-stage boosters could not carry enough propellant to land. Therefore, the company settled on the “helicopter-snag” strategy.

Rocket Lab has been steadily approaching today’s historic catch. The company has recovered the first stages of an Electron after a soft splashdown in the ocean on three recent missions, and has also caught falling booster dummies from a helicopter during a series of drop tests.

Today’s mission – the 26th in a row for Rocket Lab and Electron – was delayed several times as Rocket Lab waited for the weather to clear in the catch area, which was about 170 miles (275 km) off the coast of New Zealand. The company has a history of giving its flights playful names, and has named this flight “round trip”.

The 34 satellites launched as part of Round trip — more than on any previous Electron mission — were provided by various customers including Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight Inc. and Unseenlabs. Rocket Lab wrote in the mission description.

All of them are scheduled to be launched into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of about 323 miles (520 kilometers) above the Earth an hour after launch. Once this happens, the total number of satellites launched by Electron to date will rise to 146.

Electron won’t be the only launcher in the Rocket Lab stable if all goes according to plan. The company is developing a larger rocket called the Neutron, with a first launch scheduled for 2024. From the outset, the Neutron was designed to be partly reusable; According to Rocket Lab, its first stage will land like a Falcon 9.

Mike Wall is the author of Out There (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate) about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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