To update: Delayed again due to weather, right after I hit post. Come back on May 1!
Rocket Lab will try to make history today with its attempt to catch a spent propellant in the air with a helicopter. This (mostly) unprecedented technique is apparently the safest and most efficient the company could devise, and this will be the first large-scale operation, with the goal of capturing the first stage of the “There and Back” mission sooner. of it landing . You can watch it live below this afternoon.
Don’t worry, this isn’t just a helicopter-mounted receiver glove for the first stage to crash at terminal velocity; they have a little more common sense than that.
The booster will do its job pulling the upper stage and payload out of the lower atmosphere, then it will separate and fall along a generally predictable path, and at some point it will deploy a parachute, not too high or it might fly too far away. Once your location and speed are confirmed, a nearby special helicopter will take off towards your location.
Once you have the hover booster in sight, you’ll move to hook it up by grabbing some sort of handle that should float a bit above the thing itself. We’re not sure exactly what the current mechanism is, as this is the first time the full setup will be publicly deployed.
The company already demonstrated it works with a test article and a different helicopter in 2020, but they never captured an actual newly launched first stage; the logistics are certainly a bit more complicated, although ultimately the skyhook or whatever they call it may not have changed much. “Several critical milestones must line up perfectly to ensure a successful capture,” the mission description says, so don’t be surprised if there’s a last-minute cancellation.
The heavy-duty Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will need to have just under a thousand kilograms of spare lift, which actually seems pretty light all things considered. It’s a testament to the focus on weight and efficiency in the Electron launch vehicle that the bird could probably snatch up some of these before it’s too heavy to fly.
The mission itself, named (as you no doubt know) by the original title of Bilbo Baggins’ account of his journey in “The Hobbit,” will launch 34 satellites into orbit for a variety of clients: Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies . , E-Space and Unseenlabs.
The launch window opens around 10:35am local time in New Zealand (ie tomorrow for them), or 3:25pm (today) PDT. The broadcast below will start about 20 minutes before that.
Rocket Lab notes that “we will attempt to show live footage of the helicopter capture during this mission, but we do expect some loss of video due to the remote location of the helicopter during the capture attempt.” While this is true, it’s also useful (as SpaceX often demonstrated) if things don’t go as planned. But here’s hoping that the flight and catch go well.