The private launch team Rocket Lab again failed to catch one of the first stages of its Electron launcher with a helicopter as it floated back to Earth.
“Bringing a rocket back from space is a challenging task and capturing it in the air with a helicopter is as complex as it sounds,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “The chances of success are much lower than the chances of failure because so many complex factors have to line up perfectly.”
Rocket Lab’s Electron can successfully carry 300kg into low Earth orbit and has more than 30 launches to its name. But the ship isn’t reusable because its first stage falls into the ocean, causing its engines to die, or it burns up on re-entry. Rocket Lab has recovered Electron thrusters and successfully recovered and restored an engine for ground firing tests.
To make Electron reusable, the company hopes to catch Electrons as they float to Earth under a parachute.
That plan requires the use of Sikorsky S-92 helicopter that’s more than capable of carrying the 1000kg booster.
But catching it is something else.
As Rocket Lab staff explained during the live streamed video (see below) of the mission: “Between deploying the main parachute and the time it would take for Electron to reach the ocean, our pilots have about ten minutes to complete Within that time it takes our pilots to control the Sikorsky, balance the motion of the hook below while attached to the helicopter’s tether, accurately hook onto Electron’s parachute tether, and then secure the rocket below them to the return trip”.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, a brief telemetry loss from Electron’s first stage during re-entry meant no capture was attempted. And fair enough, given that Sikorsky’s crew clearly need to be very sure they know the rocket isn’t going to knock them out of the sky.
Rocket Lab does not consider the mission a failure, as it was able to recover the booster from the Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand.
“We are proud to have successfully retrieved our fifth rocket from the ocean now and look forward to another mid-air capture attempt in the future as we work to make Electron a reusable rocket,” said Beck.
The CEO is happier with the main job of this mission: launching a satellite called MATS (Mesospheric Airglow/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy) for the Swedish space agency.
MATS’s job is to investigate waves in the atmosphere and their impact on Earth’s climate. The satellite does that by studying variations in the light emitted by oxygen molecules at an altitude of 100 kilometers.
The satellite rose without incident and now occupies a 585 km circular orbit, making it the 152nd successful orbiter launched by Rocket Lab. ®
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