Rocket Lab will soon catch a booster out of the sky with a Sikorsky-92 helicopter

"We're absolutely threading the needle here."
Chris Young
The "Return to Sender" booster recovery rehearsal.Rocket Lab/YouTube

New Zealand and U.S.-based Rocket Lab will perform its first mid-air Electron booster capture for reusable spaceflight in its upcoming mission called "There and Back Again".

The company will deploy a Sikorsky-92 helicopter to catch its Electron booster out of the sky as it glides down to Earth using a parachute, a press statement reveals.

The mission will deliver 34 small commercial satellites to orbit, with the launch currently scheduled for April 19 from Rocket Lab's Pad A at Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula.

Electron will be the world's first reusable orbital smallsat launcher

This won't be the first time Rocket Lab retrieves a booster. The company has already retrieved its Electron booster following an ocean splashdown on three occasions. It also performed a dress rehearsal for the helicopter capture maneuver with its "Return to Sender" mission in November 2020. All of those missions helped Rocket Lab collect data for its upcoming retrieval attempt of Electron later this month.

"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 said in the statement.

"Now it's time to put it all together for the first time and pluck Electron from the skies," he added. "Trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no easy feat, we’re absolutely threading the needle here, but pushing the limits with such complex operations is in our DNA."

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The company's CEO also explained that mission success will make Electron "the first reusable orbital smallsat launcher" in the world.

Plucking a rocket booster out of the sky

For the "There and Back Again" mission, Rocket Lab chose a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter as the model is known for its strong track record in offshore operations, including search and rescue and drilling operations.

Less than three minutes after the Electron rocket launches, the second stage will separate and continue on to orbit where it will deploy its payload of small satellites. The first stage booster will then start its high-speed descent back to Earth. As the rocket nears the Earth's surface, two parachutes will be deployed, slowing the booster from a speed of more than 5,000 mph to only 22.3 mph.

Rocket Lab will soon catch a booster out of the sky with a Sikorsky-92 helicopter
Rocket Lab's Sikorsky S-92 helicopter stationed near the mission capture zone. Source: Rocket Lab

When the booster reaches an altitude and area designated as the capture zone, the helicopter will be deployed to attempt to capture it using a hook that attaches to the parachute line. The whole operation will be live-streamed and we'll be sure to provide live coverage of the event.

Rocket Lab's attempt will set it apart from the world leader in reusable spaceflight, SpaceX, which uses autonomous first-stage boosters that make a controlled landing after sending their payload on its way. Rocket Lab also recently announced a pretty wild Hungry Hungry Hippo-inspired rocket fairing for its next-generation Neutron rocket.

We wouldn't want to argue which retrieval method is cooler when comparing SpaceX and Rocket Lab — the former is very sci-fi and the latter very 90's Miami Vice. Rocket Lab's method, however, likely provides a more cost-effective solution for its smaller satellite missions. Another solution may be needed for Rocket Lab's much heavier 8-ton payload Neutron launch vehicle, which will greatly increase the company's payload-per-mission capacity over Electron.

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