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Helicopter Successfully Catches Earth-Bound Rocket in a ‘Supersonic Ballet’


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A space company has successfully caught an Earth-bound rocket—by helicopter.

The launch, last Monday, saw Rocket Lab deploying 34 satellites to orbit before the ‘Electron booster stage’ was successfully snagged on its return to Earth.

The mission eventually saw the helicopter release the booster into the sea after the “pilot detected different load characteristics than previously experienced,” and is being counted as a success.

The launch originated from Rocket Lab’s complex on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula.

Rocket Lab reports, “At 6,500 ft, Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter rendezvoused with the returning stage and used a hook on a long line to capture the parachute line.

“The mid-air capture is a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites.

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“After the catch, the helicopter pilot detected different load characteristics… and offloaded the stage for a successful splashdown.

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The big launch

The There and Back Again mission was Rocket Lab’s 26th Electron launch and deployed satellites to a sun-synchronous orbit for a variety of customers.

The mid-air capture comes after successful recovery operations from Rocket Lab’s 16th, 20th, and 22nd missions, which saw Electron’s first stage execute a controlled ocean splashdown before being returned to Rocket Lab’s production complex.

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Like those missions, a reaction control system re-oriented the first stage to an ideal angle for re-entry during the  mission, enabling the stage to survive the incredible heat and pressure during its descent back to Earth.

A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometres of descent.

There and Back Again is the first time a helicopter catch attempt was introduced to recovery operations, and today’s mission will inform future helicopter captures.

“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck.

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“A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly, so I am incredibly proud of the stellar efforts of our Recovery Team and all of our engineers who made this mission and our first catch a success.

“From here we’ll assess the stage and determine what changes we might want to make to the system and procedures for the next helicopter catch and eventual re-flight.”

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Rocket Lab’s next mission is scheduled for this month, with more details to be released very soon.

(WATCH the Al Jazeera video for this story below.)

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