The idea of recovering rockets for re-use is starting to become an important factor for those who are part of the private spaceflight race including companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin that are leading the whole group. Rocket Lab is also looking to join this group by retrieving the first stage of its Electron launch vehicle. The recovery would be made in midair by making use of a helicopter.
The method has already been successfully demonstrated above the open ocean in New Zealand. Rocket Lab is a small satellite launch provider and revealed its rocket recycling intentions back in August 2019 while announcing plans including recovering the Electron’s first stage from the ocean and mid-air. This would involve letting the first-stage re-enter the atmosphere and deploying a parachute once it has delivered its payload into orbit to help with slowing itself down as it makes its way towards Earth. It can then be allowed to make a soft landing on the ocean or a helicopter and can snatch it using the line that connects it to the parachute by making use of a specially designed grappling hook.
Rocket Lab tested this helicopter-capture method in Early march in New Zealand. According to the company, the test was conducted before the country entered the Alert Level 4 lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the test, an Electron first stage dummy was hoisted up over the open ocean with a helicopter and then released while allowing a parachute to slow down its descent. During its descent, another helicopter came along and successfully snatched the dummy on its first attempt.
Rocket Lab founder and chief executive, Peter Beck, said, ‘Congratulations to the recovery team here at Rocket Lab on a flawless mid-air recovery test. The Electron has already unlocked access to space for small satellites, but every step closer to reusability is a step closer to even more frequent launch opportunities for our customers. We’re looking forward to pushing the technology even further this year and bringing a flown stage back to the factory.’