Rocket Lab video shows practice run for midair rocket catch

As Rocket Lab makes final preparations for its ambitious attempt to catch a first-stage booster as it falls to Earth shortly after launch, the commercial spaceflight company has shared a dramatic video showing a recent practice run in which its customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter grabs a dummy booster from the sky.

While we await ideal weather conditions for #ThereAndBackAgain, the recovery team has been conducting capture tests using a stage 1 mass simulator. Our pilots make this look easy! 🚀🪂🚁 pic.twitter.com/1r6PZvzBni

— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) April 26, 2022

The video shows the dummy booster falling to Earth, slowed by a parachute. The helicopter flies toward the booster before catching it using a specially designed grappling hook to snag the parachute’s drogue line. While the helicopter has been carrying dummy boosters back to land during practice flights, Rocket Lab says that for this week’s mission it will make its first attempt at landing the helicopter and the booster on a nearby recovery ship.

The company said recently that Electron’s first stage performs a number of complex maneuvers on its descent, enabling it to withstand the extreme heat and forces of atmospheric re-entry. It’s also fitted with a heat shield to protect the booster’s nine Rutherford engines, while a parachute slows down its descent to make it easier for the helicopter pilot to move into position.

Rocket Lab is currently targeting Thursday, April 27, for its first attempt at catching part of its workhorse Electron rocket in what will be the company’s 26th commercial mission. Called There And Back Again, the mission will deploy 34 satellites for a range of customers, though it’s fair to say that all eyes will be on the company’s booster-catching effort.

If it can perfect the maneuver, plucking the booster from the sky rather than letting it fall into the ocean will make it easier for Rocket Lab to refurbish the vehicle for additional missions, helping it to reduce launch costs. Rocket Lab competitor SpaceX also reuses its first-stage boosters, but lands them upright on land or on an ocean-based barge rather than catching them.

Rocket Lab had been hoping to launch the There And Back Again mission on Wednesday, but poor weather conditions in the recovery zone off the coast of New Zealand forced a delay of at least a day.

“There are a lot of variables in catching a rocket from space — weather is one we can eliminate for the first attempt with patience,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck tweeted on Monday, adding: “Sometimes you just have to rush slowly.”

Rocket Lab is planning to livestream the mission, including the helicopter’s attempt to catch the Electron booster. Here’s how you can watch.

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