Rocket Lab has taken a huge step towards making its Electron orbital launch vehicle a reusable rocket. The company has successfully captured Electron’s first stage mid-air with a helicopter for the first time upon its return to Earth after deploying 34 satellites to orbit. To ensure that the first stage will survive its re-entry into the atmosphere, Rocket Lab re-oriented it into the ideal angle that would give it the best chances to withstand tremendous heat and pressure. A drogue parachute then deployed to increase drag before the main parachute opened up in the final part of its descent.
The company sent a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter to rendezvous with the returning stage at 6,500 feet in the air, using a hook on a cable to capture the booster's parachute line. While the catch was a success, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said on Twitter that the pilots weren't happy with the way the booster was hanging below the helicopter and opted to drop it into the ocean. It was eventually retrieved and loaded onto a vessel for transport back to Rocket Lab's HQ for re-flight assessment.
Rocket Lab says the test gave its helicopter pilot "different load characteristics than previously experienced in testing" and will provide important information for future helicopter captures. The goal is to be able to grab the booster mid-air and bring it straight back to land instead of having to drop it into the sea, since salt water could damage the booster. If the company successfully proves that it can reuse its boosters similar to what SpaceX can do, it can ramp up launch frequency and reduce mission costs for small satellites.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said:
"Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet. 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."
The company has another launch scheduled for May, but it's unclear if it will attempt another helicopter recovery.