[imagesource: Rocket Lab]
Inspired by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has become famous for landing and reusing its rockets post-flight, Rocket Lab just tried something similar but way cooler.
In an attempt to make its Electron orbital launch vehicle a reusable rocket, the space company had planned to retrieve a rocket booster in mid-air with a helicopter for the first time ever.
After launching the rocket into space from New Zealand, and successfully deploying 34 satellites into orbit, Electron’s first stage booster was indeed caught by the chopper mid-air upon its return to Earth:
There 🚀and back again 🪂 pic.twitter.com/GEsOmpYKFh
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) May 2, 2022
However, the helicopter pilot only held the booster for a few moments before dropping it into the ocean.
That’s because upon recognising “different load characteristics” that Rocket Lab had never experienced before, reports The Verge, the pilot was not able to carry it to safety:
“At his discretion, the pilot offloaded the stage for a successful splashdown, where it has been recovered by our vessel for transport back to our factory,” Murielle Baker, a communications representative for Rocket Lab, said during the launch livestream.
Watch that all happen from this video taken from a live broadcast:
Rocket Lab confirms the recovery helicopter caught the Electron booster over the Pacific Ocean, about 15 minutes after launching from from New Zealand — a major step in the company’s rocket reuse efforts. https://t.co/a8688Hvd0L pic.twitter.com/lMiAJ9gGJf
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) May 2, 2022
This experiment took nearly three years of preparation, and finally, Rocket Lab put all of the steps together for the launch named “There and Back Again”.
That’s a fitting tribute to New Zealand where The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were filmed.
The procedure worked initially as the company re-oriented the booster to the ideal angle to ensure that it would withstand the tremendous heat and pressure while hurtling to the ground.
Then, a drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag before the main parachute opened up in the final part of its descent.
The hardest part was guiding Electron’s fall through the atmosphere using its guidance and control system, according to Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab:
The rocket reaches speeds of more than 5,000 miles per hour during its fall, and it must stay in one piece as scorching-hot plasma builds up around the vehicle.
“The other really logistically challenging bit is: can you rendezvous with a rocket under a parachute in the middle of the ocean?” Beck says. “I mean, a few moments ago, it was traveling at eight times the speed of sound.”
The goal, besides doing something cool, is ultimately to save time and cut down on the manufacturing cost that comes with building an entirely new rocket for each new mission.
The live broadcast ended off by assuring that the booster is in “great condition” and that the company looks forward to assessing it in detail when it’s back in the factory.
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