Rocket Lab achieved a world first on Monday when its helicopter caught a rocket booster as it fell from the sky. However, moments after the catch, the booster was released and splashed down in the sea.
The company performed the feat during its There And Back Again mission to deploy 34 satellites into orbit for a range of private companies.
A livestream of the mission showed the first-stage booster as it returned to Earth shortly after launch, its descent slowed by a parachute. The video (below) also captured the moment the grappling hook on Rocket Lab’s customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter successfully snagged the parachute’s drogue line.
A Rocket Lab spokesperson said that after successfully catching the booster, the pilot noticed that the extra weight was affecting the helicopter’s flying performance more expected. So instead of sticking with the original plan to carry the booster to a recovery vessel, the pilot decided to offload it for a successful splashdown. It was then plucked from the water by a waiting Rocket Lab team.
“Incredible catch by the recovery team, can’t begin to explain how hard that catch was and that the pilots got it,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck tweeted a short time after the mission ended. “They did release it after hook up as they were not happy with the way it was flying, but no big deal, the rocket splashed down safely and the ship is loading it now.”
Catching the first-stage of its Electron rocket instead of letting it land in water will allow the company to reuse the booster, enabling it to cut mission costs, increase the frequency of launches, and reduce the amount of waste materials. If the rocket has remained intact following Monday’s splashdown, there’s still a chance that parts of it can be reused.
Rocket Lab has spent several years planning for Monday’s catch attempt, using a dummy rocket booster to rehearse the process. The partial success will give the company hope that it can now refine the process to make it a regular part of its Electron launch activities.
Rocket Lab, which was founded by Beck in 2006, later confirmed that all of the satellites successfully deployed in what was the company’s 26th orbital mission.
While it aims to perfect the rocket-catching process with its two-stage Electon rocket, with its next-generation Neutron rocket it’s planning to land the first-stage booster upright in a similar way to SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.