Watch Rocket Lab shoot for a mid-air booster capture via helicopter

"Our pilots make this look easy!"
Chris Young

If weather conditions are favorable on Thursday, April 28, Rocket Lab will attempt a world first.

The New Zealand and U.S.-based private space company aim to catch a first-stage rocket booster out of the sky with a helicopter soon after it sends a payload of 34 small commercial satellites hurtling towards orbit.

Rocket Lab has run many test flights in preparation for the historic achievement, and it has just posted a video showing the final preparations for the upcoming mission, called "There and Back Again."

Plucking a rocket booster out of the sky

The dramatic video shows a practice run in which the company's customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter successfully catches a dummy booster out of the sky. Watch in the embedded tweet below.

The footage suggests that Rocket Lab is very close to having the world's first reusable orbital smallsat launcher on its hands. It will be the second space company to possess a reusable rocket after SpaceX, which famously lands its Falcon 9 first stage boosters upright shortly after launch.

In Rocket Lab's video, a dummy booster descends slowly thanks to a parachute before the helicopter swoops in and catches it using a specially designed grappling hook. During the actual mission, the Rocket Lab Electron booster's 5,000 mph descent will be slowed down by two parachutes to a speed of roughly 22 mph. Heat shielding on the booster will stop it from disintegrating as it reenters the Earth's atmosphere.

How to watch Rocket Lab's launch later this week

Rocket Lab said it will start a live webcast for the mission approximately 20 minutes before launch — which will be viewable on its website and also on IE's live coverage. The company said, "we will do our best to bring you live footage of recovery, [though] it may be very limited." Additional images and footage will likely be shared on social media after the mission.

If all goes to plan, Rocket Lab will employ the mid-air capture maneuver in future missions, helping it reduce the cost of its satellite launch service. Founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a recent statement that "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."

In a space largely dominated by SpaceX's recent achievement, Rocket Lab is carving out its own space with interesting methods and concepts, including its mid-air helicopter capture. The company also recently announced that its next-generation Neutron launch vehicle will feature a Hungry Hungry Hippo-inspired rocket fairing that makes payload delivery more sustainable and cost-effective.

Stay tuned for our coverage of Rocket Lab's upcoming launch and booster capture attempt.

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