A satellite launch company uses a helicopter to rip a spent rocket out of the air

Topline

US satellite launch provider Rocket Lab used a helicopter to hook a used rocket booster mid-air during a launch on Monday, a maneuver the company says brings it closer to developing the first fully reusable small satellite launcher .

Highlights

Rocket Lab’s Electron spacecraft lifted off around 6:50 p.m. ET from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, carrying 34 customer satellites used to collect light pollution data, monitor radio signals from seagoing vessels and test the space junk disposal technology, among other functions.

About two minutes after liftoff, having exhausted its fuel, the Electron’s first-stage booster separated and fell back toward Earth, slowing its descent by 5,150 miles per hour with a parachute.

But instead of landing in the ocean, the thruster was caught around 150 nautical miles off the New Zealand coast around 7:07 p.m. ET by a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter which used a hook to grab the line parachute from the thruster, a maneuver that Rocket Lab had say again by dropping a booster from a helicopter and catching it with another helicopter.

The booster will then be transported to Rocket Lab’s Auckland production complex for analysis, the company said.

Key Context

Rocket Lab’s in-flight recovery project is part of an effort to make Electron the first reusable small satellite launcher. Catching the booster while it’s still in the air avoids “splash” in the ocean, which exposes the boosters to potentially damaging impacts at sea and subsequent exposure to salt water. This will allow Rocket Lab to perform more frequent launches, the company said. The Electron is already one of the most prolific small satellite launchers, having put 146 satellites into orbit in 26 launches since 2017, the company said. Monday’s launch included a solar-powered satellite from New Zealand-based company Astrix Astronautics and satellites from US startup E-Space intended to showcase technology for avoiding collisions with untracked space debris. Several satellites included in the launch were tiny “picosatellites”, weighing less than 2.2 pounds each.

To monitor

Rocket Lab has announced plans to build the Neutron, a reusable rocket that could return to the launch pad after liftoff, at the company’s facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. The company hopes to launch the first Neutron in 2024.

Tangent

Rocket Labs whimsically dubbed the New Zealand-based booster recovery mission “There And Back Again”, an allusion to JRR Tolkien’s 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit or there and back. Tolkien’s works are commonly associated with New Zealand, which served as the primary filming location for Peter Jackson. The Lord of the Rings movies.

Further reading

“These satellites aim to both communicate safely and clean up space junk – and they’re launching this year” (Forbes)