It might surprise some of you, but SpaceX isn’t the only name for privatized space launch services. For example, Rocket Lab, based in Long Beach, Calif., has completed 25 successful launches since 2017 and has deployed more than 100 satellites into orbit for clients including NASA, DARPA and Canon.
Although their scale is smaller than the aforementioned competitor, their focus on innovation is definitely among the industry leaders. Not only is this demonstrated by their Electron rocket, which is described as the only small orbital-class reusable rocket currently in use, but by a recent announcement of how they intend to recover said rocket after its next launch.
The “Out and Back” mission is set to take place within a 14-day launch window that begins on April 19. Following launch from their launch complex from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, the company will attempt a helicopter airborne capture of the Electron launch vehicle for the first time.
After deploying a payload consisting of satellites, as well as propulsion systems and power generators for the satellites, Rocket Lab will use a custom Sikorsky S-92 helicopter with a large twin engine to capture the rocket stage of back to his return from space.
About an hour before takeoff, the helicopter will move into position about 150 nautical miles from the New Zealand coast. Two and a half minutes after liftoff, Electron’s first and second stages will separate, per standard mission protocol. Electron’s second stage will continue in orbit to deploy the payload, while the first stage will begin its descent to Earth. As it falls, it will reach speeds of over 5,000 mph and temperatures exceeding 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
After deploying a parachute at 8.3 miles altitude, the main parachute will be extracted at approximately 3.7 miles slowing the descent to 22 mph. When the scene enters the capture area, the helicopter, through a specially designed hook, will seek to hook the parachute and secure the rocket.
According to Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck, “We have performed many successful helicopter captures with replica stages, performed extensive parachute testing, and successfully recovered Electron’s first stage from the ocean. during our 16th, 20th and 22nd missions. Now it’s time to put everything together for the first time and snatch Electron from the sky.