Catching a rocket with a helicopter is hard: Rocket Lab

Catching a rocket with a helicopter is hard: Rocket Lab

Private launch company Rocket Lab again failed to catch one of the first stages of its Electron launch vehicle with a helicopter as it returned to Earth.

“Bringing a rocket back from space is a difficult task and capturing it in flight with a helicopter is as complex as it sounds,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “The chances of success are much lower than those of failure because many complex factors must align perfectly.”

Rocket Lab’s Electron can carry 300 kg to low Earth orbit and has more than 30 successful launches to its credit. But the craft is not reusable because its first stage splashes in the ocean – which rather spoils its engines – or burns out on reentry. Rocket Lab recovered Electron thrusters and successfully recovered and restored an engine for terrestrial firing tests.

To make Electron reusable, the company hopes to catch electrons as they float to Earth under a parachute.

This plan requires the use of a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter which is more than capable of carrying the 1,000 kg thruster.

But catching it is another matter.

As Rocket Lab staff explained during the live streamed video (see below) of the mission: “Between the main parachute deployment and the time it would take for Electron to reach the ocean, our pilots have approximately ten minutes to complete the hold.Within this time our pilots need to control the Sikorsky, balance the swing of the hook below while it is attached to the helicopter line, precisely hold on to Electron’s parachute line, then secure the rocket under them for the return trip.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, a brief loss of telemetry from Electron’s first stage during re-entry meant that capture was not attempted. And fair enough, since Sikorsky’s crew must clearly be very confident, they know the rocket isn’t going to knock them out of the sky.

Youtube video

Rocket Lab does not consider the mission a failure, as it was able to retrieve the booster from the Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand.

“We are proud to have successfully recovered our fifth rocket from the ocean now and look forward to another midair capture attempt in the future as we work to make Electron a reusable rocket,” said Beck.

The CEO is more satisfied with the main work of this mission: launching a satellite called MATS (Mesospheric Airglow/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy) for the Swedish space agency.

The work of MATS is to study waves in the atmosphere and their impact on the Earth’s climate. To do this, the satellite studies the variations in the light emitted by oxygen molecules at an altitude of 100 kilometres.

The satellite blasted off without incident and now occupies a 585 km circular orbit, making it the 152nd orbiter successfully launched by Rocket Lab. ®

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