Rocket Lab • Registry
Rocket Lab’s private launch vehicle once again failed to catch one of the first stages of its Electron helicopter launcher as it floated back to Earth.
“Retrieving a rocket from space is a challenging task, and capturing it in the air with a helicopter is as complex as it sounds,” said Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. “The chances of success are much smaller than those of failure because so many complex factors have to align perfectly.”
Rocket Lab’s Electron can carry 300 kg into low Earth orbit and has over 30 successful launches. But the craft is not reusable because its first stage either splashes into the ocean – rather wreaking havoc on its engines – or burns up on re-entry. Rocket Lab recovered the Electron boosters, and successfully rebuilt and rebuilt one engine for ground test firings.
To make the Electron reusable, the company hopes to capture the electrons as they float to Earth under a parachute.
That plan requires use Sikorsky S-92 helicopter it is more than capable of carrying a 1,000 kg booster.
But catching him is another matter.
As Rocket Lab staff explained during the mission’s video broadcast (see below): “Between the main parachute deployment and the time it takes the Electron to reach the ocean, our pilots have about ten minutes to complete the catch. Within that time our pilots need control the Sikorsky, balance the swing of the hook below while attached to the helicopter line, attach precisely to the Electron’s parachute line, and then secure the rocket underneath for the return.”
Unfortunately, on this occasion, a brief loss of telemetry from the Electron’s first stage during re-entry meant that no capture was attempted. And fair enough, given that the Sikorsky crew obviously have to be very confident that they won’t be knocked out of the sky by the rocket.
Rocket Lab does not consider the mission a failure, as it was able to retrieve the booster from the Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand.
“We are proud to have now successfully retrieved our fifth rocket from the ocean and look forward to another airborne capture attempt in the future as we work to make the Electron a reusable rocket,” Beck said.
The CEO is happier about the main job of the mission: launching a satellite called MATS (Mesospheric Air/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy) for the Swedish Space Agency.
MATS’ job is to investigate waves in the atmosphere and their effect on Earth’s climate. The satellite does this by studying variations in the light emitted by oxygen molecules at an altitude of 100 kilometers.
The satellite lifted off without incident and now occupies a circular orbit of 585 km, making it the 152nd orbiter successfully launched by Rocket Lab. ®
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