Small rocket builder Rocket Lab USA is gearing up for a mission that seems more appropriate for a big-budget action movie: catching a falling four-story-tall rocket booster with a helicopter.
The Long Beach, California-based company is trying to slash the cost of spaceflight by reusing its rockets, a trend pioneered by billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Unlike SpaceX’s reusable, two-stage rocket Falcon 9, which reignites its engines to return to Earth, Rocket Lab aims for a helicopter with two pilots to pluck an 11.9m booster stage from mid-air using a combination of ropes, parachutes and a heatshield.
“I’m pretty confident that if the helicopter pilots can see it, they’ll catch it,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said. “If we don’t get it this time, we’ll learn a bunch and we’ll get it the next time, so I’m not super worried.”
Hinging on good weather, the capture test is due to take place this morning off the coast of Mahia, New Zealand, the location of Rocket Lab’s primary launch site.
Rocket Lab, which went public last year through a blank-check merger led by Vector Capital that valued it at US$4.1 billion, has launched about two dozen missions to orbit for a mix of government and commercial customers, three of which ended in mission failures.
The growing field of small rocket companies also includes Astra Space and Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit.
Recovering rocket boosters with parachutes and helicopters instead of using its engines to land vertically means the rocket does not need to save extra — and heavy — fuel for a “propulsive” landing like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Beck said.
Landing rockets vertically is also trickier for smaller, lighter rockets, engineers say.
Rocket Lab’s helicopter capture test is set to take place after the company’s Electron rocket launches 34 small satellites in a mission that Rocket Lab named “There and Back Again.”
After the first stage booster launches to space and releases its satellite-topped second stage toward orbit, it is designed to fall back to Earth at eight times the speed of sound, re-entering the atmosphere along a narrow path to rendezvous with the helicopter, which is equipped with tracking computers.
The booster stage is designed to deploy a series of parachutes to brake its speed. If all goes well, pilots would steer the helicopter, dangling a long cable underneath, toward the parachuting booster, hook onto it and carry it back to land.
A video of a previous test showed a dummy rocket stage drifting down beneath a parachute, with a smaller, secondary chute stretching the capture line to the side of the rocket, making it easier for the helicopter’s vertically hanging hook line to catch on. The helicopter remains well above the rocket.
“Every piece we’ve successfully tested individually, now it’s just an orchestra to conduct,” Beck said. “If we can use a rocket twice, then we’ve just doubled our production.”
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