In the coming days, Rocket Lab USA will launch its two-stage Electron rocket into space to deploy a few dozen satellites into orbit on behalf of six other companies. As Electron’s second-stage rocket flies into orbit to get the job done, the first-stage rocket launcher will fall back to Earth – and a helicopter will try to grab it.
Catching the returning rocket will be “a very complex operation that requires extreme precision,” the company said in a statement.
Rocket Lab will provide a live stream of the in-flight Wild Catch approximately T-20 minutes before launch. After weather delays, Rocket Lab said Friday the company aims to launch no earlier than May 1 UTC. The company will attempt to provide a live view of the capture from the helicopter, although the remote location of the capture will likely result in video loss.
Founded in 2006, Rocket Lab has already put more than 100 satellites into orbit for customers in the commercial, civil, defense and academic sectors. This mission, dubbed “Out and Back”, will be the 26th launch of its Electron rocket. This is the first time, however, that the company will attempt to capture the first stage of the Electron rocket with a helicopter. The in-flight capture would mark a milestone in the company’s efforts to make Electron a usable rocket.
“We are excited to enter this next phase of Electron’s recovery program,” Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “We performed numerous successful captures of helicopters with replica stages, performed extensive parachute testing, and successfully recovered Electron’s first stage from the ocean during our 16th, 20th, and 22nd missions. Now is the time to put it all together for the first time and tear Electron out of the sky Trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no small feat, we’re absolutely threading the needle here, but pushing the boundaries with such complex operations is in our DNA. We expect to learn a tremendous amount from the mission as we work towards the ultimate goal of making Electron the first small reusable orbital satellite launcher and offering our customers even more of launch availability.”
SpaceX pioneered the nascent move away from single-use rocket systems with the two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, which re-ignites its engines to return to Earth.
The Electron rocket will lift off from Pad A at Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. The rocket will carry 34 payloads from various commercial operators, bringing the total number of satellites launched by Electron to 146.
In an attempt to catch the rocket, Rocket Lab will use a custom Sikorsky S-92, a large twin-engine helicopter typically used in offshore oil and gas transportation, as well as search and rescue operations. About an hour before takeoff, the S-92 will move to the capture area, approximately 150 nautical miles off the New Zealand coast.
The rocket’s first and second stages are expected to separate at T+2:30 minutes after liftoff. As the second-stage rocket falls back to Earth, it will reach speeds of nearly 5,150 miles per hour and temperatures of around 2,400 degrees C (4,352 F).
At an altitude of 8.3 miles, the rocket will deploy a stabilizer parachute to significantly slow its speed. Once in the capture area, the helicopter will attempt to grab the parachute line with a hook. Then the helicopter can fly it back to earth where Rocket Lab can assess its flight ability.