“Supersonic Ballet”: Helicopter briefly catches falling rocket | Space
A space company briefly managed to catch a falling rocket using a helicopter and a hook in a test described by its chief executive as “something like a supersonic ballet”.
The test was part of Rocket Lab’s attempts to find relatively inexpensive ways to recover rockets for multiple space missions.
After lifting off to send 34 satellites into orbit at 10:50 a.m. local time (2350 BST) in New Zealand, the California-based company’s four-stage Electron booster stage fell back into Earth’s atmosphere and deployed a series of parachutes to slow its speed. .
High above the South Pacific just off the New Zealand coast, a helicopter suspended from a long vertical cable from below was steered by two pilots above the thruster, which had stretched a catch line to his sides as he descended under a parachute at approximately 22 mph (35 km/h).
The helicopter’s cable snagged on the booster’s capture line, seen on the company’s live stream, drawing cheers and applause from Rocket Lab engineers in the Mission Control Center of the company in Long Beach.
But the cheers turned to groans as the helicopter pilots were forced to free the rocket from the cable and drop it into the Pacific Ocean after noticing “different load characteristics” than had been experienced in previous capture tests, a Rocket Lab spokesperson later said.
Peter Beck, Founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, said: “Bringing a rocket out of space and catching it with a helicopter is a kind of supersonic ballet. A huge number of factors must align and many systems must work together perfectly, so I’m incredibly proud of the outstanding efforts of our recovery team and all of our engineers who made this mission and our first take a success.
The rocket stage made a controlled splashdown in the ocean after its brief capture. On-board systems oriented the rocket to minimize damage from impact with water. It was then loaded onto a recovery vessel.
Its condition will be assessed and a decision will be made on whether to refurbish it for another flight. Reusing rocket stages dramatically reduces the cost of reaching orbit. Catching them before they crash eliminates the risk of salt water and impact damage.
The team will also review the brief capture to understand what happened and determine if any changes are needed before the next helicopter flight attempt. Another Electron launch is scheduled for later this month.
Reuters contributed to this report