After several days of lack of cooperation thwarted Rocket Lab’s launch plans, the company launched a missile and successfully captured it by helicopter when it fell to the ground. The decisive moment was the first comprehensive test of this recovery technique.
Recovering rocket boosters and restarting devices could save millions of dollars. SpaceX has been doing this for years, but the two companies have very different ways of landing their rocket boosters.
The electron was launched from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula just before 7 p.m. ET on a “there and back again” mission carrying 34 ride-sharing satellites into orbit.
Rocket Lab’s plan involved taking a booster rocket out of the sky by catching it using a helicopter and parachute system. The plan succeeded in the company’s first attempt.
After separating, the lower half of the rocket began to return to Earth, performing a series of complex maneuvers to allow it to clear the intense heat as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. The rocket was traveling at about 5,150 miles per hour when it began its descent back to Earth.
A rolling canopy is deployed from the booster about 7 minutes after takeoff, and begins to slow down the electron’s speed. Next, the main parachute was deployed, slowing the booster to about 22 mph to allow Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky helicopter to catch the parachute.
There are only a few minutes in the helicopter’s recovery window to use a line and disable the parachute.
“We’re all waiting on the edge of our seats,” said Muriel Baker, communications representative for Rocket Lab.
The view from the helicopter showed clouds and the line waited to catch it for several minutes. Then the orange and white parachute appeared and Rocket Lab announced it had picked up the booster.
“Helicopter Hunting!” Rocket Lab tweeted after the parachute was seen in the helicopter’s camera feed.
The helicopter is set to transport the crane to a rescue ship nearby at sea. However, the pilot noticed a different “payload characteristics” than during the tests and made the decision to drop the booster in the Pacific Ocean.
Baker said the booster is still in “good shape” and has been picked up by the rescue ship.
“This is a huge step forward in our program to make the electron a reusable vehicle,” Baker said after the capture.
Rocket Lab pushed the launch date multiple times due to the weather. The company wanted to try on Friday and Sunday, but the weather wasn’t on their side both times.
“We don’t give Mother Nature much power over launch timing, but for our first helicopter hunting attempt, we want to arrange the best possible conditions to give us the greatest chance of a successful hunt,” Rocket Lab tweeted recently a week ago. “Over time, we will narrow those boundaries.”
According to Morgan Bailey, director of communications at Rocket Lab, the team is looking to avoid fog and low cloud cover to maximize visibility for helicopter hunting. Once the helicopter grabs the booster, it will be lowered into a boat at sea, which requires minimal wave height.
Rocket Lab installed a camera on the booster and provided views of the rocket as it returned, but the feed was quickly cut off.