Small-time rocket builder Rocket Lab USA Inc. gears up for a mission that seems more fitting for a big-budget action movie: catch a falling four-stage rocket booster with a helicopter.
The Long Beach, Calif.-based company is trying to cut the cost of spaceflight by reusing its rockets, a trend pioneered by SpaceX billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
But unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusable two-stage rocket, which re-ignites its engines to return to Earth, Rocket Lab is aiming for a helicopter with two pilots to snatch a 11.9-meter-tall booster stage using rockets. a combination of ropes, parachutes and a heat shield.
“I’m pretty confident that if helicopter pilots can see it, they’ll catch it,” Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck told Reuters. “If we don’t get it this time, we’ll learn a lot and get it next time, so I’m not super worried.”
Depending on good weather, the capture test is scheduled to take place off Mahia, New Zealand, the location of Rocket Lab’s main launch site around 6:35 p.m. EDT.
Rocket Lab, which went public in 2021 through a white merger led by Vector Capital that valued it at $4.1 billion, has launched about two dozen missions into orbit for a mix of government and commercial clients, three of which ended in mission failures. The growing field of small rocket companies also includes Richard Branson’s Astra Space and Virgin Orbit.
Retrieving rocket boosters via parachutes and helicopters instead of using its engines to land vertically means the rocket doesn’t need to save extra – and heavy – fuel for a “propulsive” landing like the Falcon 9 from SpaceX, Beck said.
And vertical rocket landing is 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 Rocket Lab has named “Out and Back.”
After the first-stage booster launches into space and releases its satellite-topped second stage to orbit, it is designed to fall back to Earth at eight times the speed of sound, re-entering the atmosphere the along a narrow path to reach the helicopter, which is equipped with tracking computers.
The booster stage is designed to deploy a series of parachutes to curb its speed. If all goes well, the pilots steer the helicopter, dangling a long cable below, to the skydiving thruster, hook onto it, and bring it back down to earth.
Video from an earlier test showed a dummy rocket stage drifting under a parachute, with a smaller secondary chute stretching the catch line out the side of the rocket, making it easier to hook the hook line hanging vertically from the rocket. ‘helicopter. The helicopter stays well above the rocket.
“Every track 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.”
(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Will Dunham)