Forget SpaceX, Rocket Lab catches up with its rocket in flight with… a helicopter

Forget SpaceX, Rocket Lab catches up with its rocket in flight with… a helicopter

Electron, RocketLab’s small launcher, may not be able to return to the fold on its own like those of SpaceX… but that did not prevent its designers from recovering it.

For the past few years, it has undoubtedly been SpaceX that has been making the rain and the good weather in the American aerospace industry. But they are not the only ones; in the background, there is also a whole ecosystem of extremely competent companies that work wonders in the shadow of the media colossus. Among them, we can mention Rocket Lab, which has just achieved a resounding feat by catching up with its launcher…in a helicopter.

In the wake of SpaceX which recently picked up its 100th launch vehicle, the whole industry is gradually starting to embrace the concept of reusable rocket. Elon Musk’s firm is still the undisputed specialist in the matter; at present, she is the only one who has already completely integrated the beginning of vehicle reuse into its operational routine.

Rocket Lab, for its part, has a rather different profile since it specializes above all in light loads with its excellent Electron launcher, a jewel of versatility and reliability that remains very economical. How to make it one of industry darlings when it comes to routine operations to low Earth orbit.

For some time, she has been working on her own recovery and reuse program. But Rocket Lab’s small launch vehicles aren’t designed like SpaceX’s; they are much smaller and lighter, and do not carry not enough fuel to handle the landing themselves. It was therefore necessary to find a different approach, and the firm ended up deciding in favor of a scenario that Michael Bay would not have denied: grab the launcher in helicopter flight, as they had already successfully tested it last month (see the video below).

A perfect mission from start to finish… or almost

On Monday, May 2, Rocket Lab sent 34 satellites into orbit on behalf of third parties aboard an Electron launcher. The operation was a resounding success; hardware from Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight Inc. and Unseenlabs now rests quietly in orbit at an altitude of 520 km.

But for once, the main attraction of the day was a few hundred kilometers below. Because around the same time, the first stage of the rocket, which had been detached during the ascent, began to approach the Pacific Ocean.

On his way: the hero of the day, a seasoned pilot firmly in his Sikorsky S-92 helicopter. As soon as the first floor showed the end of its nose, the pilot rushed into a sequence that seems straight out of an episode of Mission impossible; he went seize the machine in full flight by the parachute using a hook. It before depositing it in the ocean, near a barge parked nearby (at 15:30 on the video below).

On the way to systematic recovery

It’s a huge success on all levels for Rocket Lab. We obviously have to salute the performance of the pilot, but also that of the teams on the ground, both in terms of planning and execution. After all, even SpaceX has never attempted to recover a mid-air craft this way. It is therefore a grand premiere for Rocket Lab, but also for aerospace in general.

From now on, the whole challenge will be to repeat the feat to recover as many launchers as possible over the next two years. After this milestone, the firm should have completed the development of its next launcher, called Neutron. Unlike Electron, this one should be able to land without the aid of a helicopter, as SpaceX’s machines do; it should then become the second company to integrate launcher recovery into its operational routine. The future of aerospace looks very exciting!

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