The first-ever helicopter retrieval of a rocket booster could happen this week

A Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will attempt to capture the Electron first stage booster after launch.
Chris Young
Rocket Lab's Electron (left) and a helicopter catch rehearsal (right).1, 2

We are days away from seeing the first instance of a reusable rocket booster plucked out of the sky by a helicopter.

That is, of course, if all goes to plan, and Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck recently compared the operation to "threading a needle" with a rocket booster that's just descended to Earth at speeds exceeding 5,000 mph.

The mission called "There and Back Again" — a nod to Rocket Lab's New Zealand heritage and its demonstration of reusable technology — will take place on Friday, April 22, at the earliest. It will carry 34 commercial satellites to orbit, but the main draw will be that dramatic helicopter capture maneuver.

The company's Electron booster won't disintegrate on re-entry thanks to the addition of heat shielding for this mission, added to protect it from temperatures of roughly 2,400 °C.

As it nears the Earth's surface, the rocket will deploy two parachutes that will slow it down to 22.3 mph. A Sikorsky S-92 helicopter hovering at the landing zone will then approach the booster and use a grappling hook to snag it as it glides down to sea level.

Success for Rocket Lab could signal a new era of reusable small satellite launch missions at a time when new companies aim to disrupt the booming sector. SpinLaunch, for example, recently earned a NASA Space Act contract to test its system, designed to catapult small payloads into orbit with minimal Another firm, Green Launch, is developing an artillery-like system to fire payloads into space.

Plucking a rocket out of the sky

Though success with its 'There and Back Again' mission will make Rocket Lab only the second company after SpaceX to successfully retrieve a first-stage rocket booster for reuse, it isn't the first time a space machine will be plucked out of the sky by a helicopter. As IEEE Spectrum points out, in 1960, the U.S. Air Force caught a capsule mid-air from the Discoverer 14 mission, containing film footage of the Soviet Union from a spy satellite.

Rocket Lab's method is all about economy. While not as complex as SpaceX's A.I.-enabled first stage booster landings, the mission will still be incredibly hard to carry out successfully and it is the result of numerous tests and rehearsals.

"We've conducted many successful helicopter captures with replica stages, carried out extensive parachute tests, and successfully recovered Electron's first stage from the ocean during our 16th, 20th, and 22nd missions," Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck explained in a statement.

This will enable Rocket Lab to lower the cost of its launches, and will allow it to continue to establish itself as one of the leading smallsat launchers. The new mission will be Rocket Lab's 26th Electron launch, and it has launched more than 100 satellites into orbit. The company is also developing a larger launch vehicle called Neutron, which will feature an innovative Hungry Hungry Hippo-inspired rocket fairing.

Rocket Lab says it will start a live webcast for the mission approximately 20 minutes before launch. The private space firm said, "we will do our best to bring you live footage of recovery, [though] it may be very limited." Additional images and footage will be shared after the mission has ended.

As for Rocket Lab's next mission, it seems like they really missed a beat this time around. As one teenager wrote in a Twitter post aimed at Beck, "it would have been cool if the mission was called 'Catch Me If You Can.'" Beck replied, saying "Oh…that's good! Congratulations, you have just named the very next recovery mission."

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