Catch a falling rocket with a helicopter? yes that’s the plan

WASHINGTON, April 28 (Reuters) – Small rocket maker Rocket Lab USA Inc (RKLB.O) is gearing up for a mission that seems more appropriate for a big-budget action movie: nab a four-story rocket booster from height falling with a helicopter.

The Long Beach, California-based company is trying to reduce the cost of spaceflight by reusing its rockets, a trend started by billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

But unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 two-stage reusable rocket, which restarts its engines to return to Earth, Rocket Lab is targeting a helicopter with two pilots to blast off a 39-foot-tall (11.9-meter) booster stage. meters high) from the middle of the distance. air using a combination of ropes, parachutes, and a heat shield.

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“I’m pretty sure if the helicopter pilots can see it, they will catch it,” Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck told Reuters. “If we don’t get it this time, we’ll learn a lot and we’ll get it next time, so I’m not too worried.”

Depending on good weather, the test catch will take place off the coast of Mahia, New Zealand, the location of Rocket Lab’s main launch site (10:35 a.m. Saturday at the launch site/6:35 p.m. EDT on Friday). 2235 GMT on Friday).

Rocket Lab, which went public in 2021 through a Vector Capital-led blank check merger that valued it at $4.1 billion, launched roughly two dozen missions into orbit for a mix of government and commercial clients, three of which ended in failed missions. 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 their engines to land vertically means the rocket doesn’t need to save extra, heavy fuel for a “boost” landing like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Beck said.

And landing rockets vertically is trickier for smaller, lighter rockets, according to engineers.

Rocket Lab’s helicopter capture test will take place after the company’s Electron rocket launches 34 small satellites in a mission Rocket Lab dubbed “There and Back.”

After the first stage booster launches into space and releases its second stage on top of the satellite into orbit, it is designed to fall back to Earth at eight times the speed of sound, re-entering the atmosphere at along a narrow path to meet the helicopter. which is equipped with tracking computers.

The booster stage is designed to deploy a series of parachutes to slow down your speed. If all goes well, the pilots would steer the helicopter, dangling a long cable below, to the skydiving booster, hook it up, and bring it back to the ground.

AN video of a previous test it showed a dummy rocket stage drifting under a parachute, with a smaller secondary ramp stretching the catch line to the side of the rocket, making it easier for the helicopter’s vertically hanging hook line to snag. The helicopter remains high above the rocket.

“Each piece that we’ve successfully tested individually is now just an orchestra to conduct,” Beck said. “If we can use a rocket twice, then we’ve just doubled our production.”

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Information from Joey Roulette; Edited by Will Dunham

Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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