Rocket Lab will try again to catch an Electron rocket booster by helicopter

Rocket Lab is gearing up for a second attempt to catch a rocket booster in mid-air using a helicopter, a technique the company hopes to perfect after a partially successful recovery earlier this year.

The mission, playfully named Catch Me If You Can, is scheduled to take place no earlier than November 4 from the company’s launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The 75-minute launch window opens at 1:15 PM EST. This will be Electron’s 32nd launch to date.

The company aims to bring a research satellite for the Swedish National Space Agency, provided by OHB Sweden, into sun-synchronous orbit. The Mesopheric Airglow/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy satellite will be used to study atmospheric waves and their relationship to wind and weather in different parts of the atmosphere.

Catching a rocket booster in mid-air is no small feat – even with the parachute that the booster releases to slow its descent back to Earth. During the first helicopter extraction attempt on May 2, the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter managed to catch on on the parachute line about 6,500 feet above the ocean, but released it almost immediately. The pilot unloaded the booster after noticing “loading characteristics different from those during testing,” a Rocket Lab spokesman said at the time. Like other recovery attempts, the booster was launched into the sea and retrieved by boat.

Once again, Rocket Lab will deploy its Sikorsky S-92 helicopter shortly before launch. The S-92, built by Connecticut-based Sikorsky Aircraft, is capable of lifting 5,000 kilograms, a capacity that is more than enough for the 1,000-kilogram Electron booster. Rocket Lab equipped the helicopter with a grappling hook, extended-range fuel tanks and other features to ensure the three-person crew—pilot, copilot and rocket observer—is ready for success.

“Our first helicopter capture just a few months ago proved that we can do what we set out to do with the Electron, and we can’t wait to get the helicopter back out there and improve the reusability of our rocket even more by returning the dry stage for the first time,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.

Rocket Lab, which was founded in 2006, has taken a fairly iterative approach to testing. It conducted two missions, in November 2020 and May 2021, where the booster was equipped with a parachute (no helicopter) and the company collected data on its descent. The company also uses booster simulators and studies boosters fished out of the ocean to better understand their condition upon their return to Earth.

Beck said reusability is key to increasing launch speed and reducing vehicle manufacturing costs. The Neutron rocket with a larger payload, still under development, is also being designed to be reusable.

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