Rocket Lab has successfully grabbed a rocket coming down from space with a helicopter. The impressive feat is a new way to make sure that rockets don’t end up in the ocean, on the ground, or simply burning up in the atmosphere.
The launch was delayed by a few days and the rocket eventually took off from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 18:49 ET on May 2. To emphasize the company’s connection to the Southern Hemisphere country, the mission was named “There and Back Again” in homage to The Hobbit. The world imagined by Tolkien has now become synonymous with New Zealand thanks to Peter Jackson’s movies.
The rocket flew to orbit and delivered 34 satellites, before a reaction control system placed it at the ideal angle to come back down without burning. The booster rocket released a drogue parachute to stabilize the descent before a larger parachute was released to slow the rocket down.
Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter then met the rocket at about 2 kilometers (6,500 feet) of altitude and a hook grabbed the line of the parachute. Once there, the pilot saw load characteristics that were different from the test and moved the rocket so that a successful splashdown could be performed. The booster is on its way to the company production complex for testing, hoping that it will be ready to launch as expected.
“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck in a statement. “A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly, so I am incredibly proud of the stellar efforts of our Recovery Team and all of our engineers who made this mission and our first catch a success. From here we’ll assess the stage and determine what changes we might want to make to the system and procedures for the next helicopter catch and eventual re-flight.”
Rocket Lab has another launch planned later this month, but there is currently no information on whether another helicopter capture will be performed then.