Today, Rocket Lab will attempt to make history by catching a spent rocket in mid-flight using a helicopter. This (largely) novel approach appears to be the safest and most efficient the business could devise, and this will be the first full-scale operation, with the goal of catching the first stage of the “There and Back Again” mission before it splashes down. This afternoon, you can watch it live below. Don’t worry, it’s not just a catcher’s mitt put on a helicopter for the first stage to crash into at top speed; they’ve got a bit more sense than that.
The rocket will get the upper stage and payload out of the lower atmosphere, then separate and fall along a relatively predictable route, with a parachute deployed at some point — not too high, because it will drift too far. A nearby special-purpose helicopter will take off toward its position once its location and velocity have been established. It will move in to seize the floating booster once it has it in its sights, grasping onto a type of handle that should float above the object itself. We don’t know what the present method is because this is the first time the entire arrangement will be made public.
In 2020, the business demonstrated that it works with a test piece and a different helicopter, but they have never grabbed an actual first stage fresh from launch — no doubt the logistics are significantly more challenging, but the skyhook, or whatever they call it, may not have altered much. The mission’s description states that “a number of important milestones must line perfectly to enable a successful capture,” so don’t be shocked if there’s a last-minute cancellation.
The heavy-duty Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will require just under a thousand kg of extra lift, which, all things considered, appears to be very light. It’s a credit to the Electron launch vehicle’s attention on weight and efficiency that the bird could probably snare a few of them before becoming too heavy to fly. The mission, which will launch 34 satellites for a range of clients, including Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, and Unseenlabs, will be titled after the original title of Bilbo Baggins’ account of his journey in “The Hobbit.”
The launch window will open at around 10:35 a.m. local time in New Zealand (that is, tomorrow), or 3:35 p.m. PDT (today). About 20 minutes before that, the feed below will begin. “We will endeavor to display live footage of the helicopter capture throughout this operation,” Rocket Lab says, “although we do expect some video loss owing to the helicopter’s distant location during the capture attempt.” While this is true, it may also be useful (as SpaceX has proved) if things don’t go as planned. However, let’s hope the trip and capture go smoothly.