Space startup Rocket Lab is all set to pull off its latest feat today: using a helicopter to catch a rocket booster in mid-air as it plummets back to Earth.
The launch window for the “Catch Me If You Can” mission opens today, November 4, between 5:15-6:30 pm UTC (1:15-2:30 pm EST). Best of all, the entire spectacle will be live-streamed via Rocket Lab's website.
Here’s how the mission should pan out: Rocket Lab will launch one of its 18-meter (59-foot) tall Electron rockets from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Shortly after the launch, a customized recovery helicopter will set off to the capture zone at sea, around 160 nautical miles off New Zealand’s Banks Peninsula.
Once Electron’s payload is dropped into orbit, the rocket’s first stage will descend back to Earth over the sea, reaching blistering speeds of up to 8,300 kilometers (5,150 miles) per hour and temperatures of up to 2,400°C (4,352°F).
It will release a parachute to slow down to just 36 kilometers (22 miles) per hour. The helicopter will match the rocket’s speed and descend from above, attempting to latch onto the trailing parachute using a hook attacked by a long line.
Rocket Lab first tried this unique style of rocket re-entry in May 2022 in a mission called “There And Back Again”. It was a success, but the mission purposely dropped in the rocket back into the sea. This latest mission will go further and fly the first stage back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex in Auckland where technicians will study it and see whether it's fit to re-use.
“Our first helicopter catch only a few months ago proved we can do what we set out to do with Electron, and we’re eager to get the helicopter back out there and advance our rocket reusability even further by bringing back a dry stage for the first time,” Peter Beck, Rocket Lab CEO and founder, said in a statement.
The goal of this whole project is to find a safe and lower-cost means of returning rockets to Earth for re-use, just like the reusable launch system program developed by SpaceX.
Single-use rockets are one of the main reasons space travel is so expensive; it’s basically like crashing a plane into the sea every time you fly somewhere on vacation. If you can re-use the rocket stages, however, you stand to save a significant amount of money, making launches cheaper and more accessible.
This means various space startups are developing some intriguing ways of both getting rockets up and bringing them down.