A helicopter has caught a falling rocket before the crew was forced to drop it for safety reasons about 20 seconds later.The feat was pulled off by a company called Rocket Lab which aims to launch satellites using its reusable Electron rockets.
After the main booster took 34 satellites into orbit on Tuesday it fell back to Earth, slowed by a parachute.Rocket Lab’s helicopter crew – flying a Sikorsky S-92 chopper at 6,500ft (1,980m) – attempted to snag it by grabbing hold of the parachute lines with a dangling cable and hook.
The helicopter attempted to catch the booster as it was parachuting down. Pic: Rocket Labs
However the weight of the booster was beyond what they had experienced in tests and simulations so they were forced to let it go again.
It continued its descent into the Pacific Ocean and was collected by a waiting boat.
Peter Beck, who founded the company, said the task of collecting the boosters was like a “supersonic ballet” it was so complex.
He claimed the mission was a success, even though the helicopter was forced to drop the rocket – describing the unexpected load issue as “nothing in the scheme of things”.He said the helicopter crew “got a great catch, they just didn’t like the way the load was feeling” and added that a detailed analysis would reveal the reasons behind it.The company hopes to salvage some or all of the booster, despite it splashing down into the salt water of the Pacific Ocean.Reusing rockets has become the holy grail of the space industry following the achievements of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 launch vehicles are capable of landing themselves upright.Rocket Lab’s Electron boosters are much smaller than the Falcon 9 rockets, they can’t carry as big a payload and aren’t capable of landing themselves, but the company thinks it could make major savings by catching the rockets after they launch.Mr Beck, the company’s chief executive, said that even simply bringing this Electron rocket back to the production line meant they would see some good cost savings as they wouldn’t have to rebuild from scratch.