If you are doing a double-take after reading that title you aren’t going crazy, it means exactly what it says. This is undoubtedly one of the coolest things happening in all of aerospace right now so you won’t want to miss this. Don’t worry, I’ll elaborate a bit though.
(in your time zone)
(subject to change, I will update)
BRIEF MISSION SYNOPSIS
So what exactly do I mean to catch a rocket with a helicopter? Well, I mean just that! Rocket Lab has been working to recover its rockets for a few years now, and the plan has always been to eventually catch them. On Friday they will be making the first attempt to do so. After launching multiple commercial rideshare satellites into orbit the first stage of the Electron rocket will fall back to earth and hopefully, if all goes to plan, get caught by a helicopter.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is a well-proven rocket at this point. With 22 successful launches under its belt and just 3 failures, it is almost undoubtedly the go-to smallsat launcher right now. Its 9 Rutherford engines produce 162 kn of thrust (about as much thrust as a 737) and the rocket on the pad masses about 13 tons (about 1/6 a 737). The rocket stands 18 m (about 60 feet) tall and 1.2 m (about 4 feet) in diameter. It is capable of launching 300 kg (about 660 lbs, or about 2.5 average refrigerators) into low earth orbit, and even launching very small payloads to the moon and even other interplanetary destinations. It uses two stages, the first gets the rocket to the very top of the atmosphere and has 9 sea-level Rutherford engines. The second gets the payload all the way into orbit (to get into orbit you have to not just be really high, but really fast, about 17,500 mph for low earth orbit) and has one vacuum optimized Rutherford engine.
Ok so location typically isn’t that important unless you live nearby or are like a big enthusiast, but this place is so pretty I couldn’t help but share. Even though Rocket Lab is a US-based company, its main launch facility is in New Zealand. More specifically Mahia Spaceport. I think they literary stole this place from some kind of postcard, it’s so pretty. Anyway, that’s basically it for location, I just had to show you guys that, if you want to learn more about Mahia Spaceport I will link the Wikipedia page as well.
LAUNCH AND RECOVERY
So this is really why we are here. Electron will launch much like any rocket, once the second stage separates though the booster will, as with almost all rockets, start to fall back to earth. The difference is that the booster will use heat shielding on the vehicle to survive re-entry, then deploy a parachute to guide it down gently to the ocean below. This part has been done several times by them before, but up until now, it has always just been dumped in the ocean. That’s better than losing the booster altogether, but seawater is still not good for sensitive rocket bits. So now they will have a helicopter try to catch the booster by it’s parachute before it hits the water. It should be pretty spectacular to watch. I’ll link the video of their test below to give you an idea of what this catch will look like.
There is no official stream available yet, though Rocket Lab launches are streamed to their YouTube channel so this is really just a matter of time till that stream shows up. I will caution though that I have no idea what the live stream plans are for the helicopter catch part. There is also no precedent for how to stream that maneuver. I know they know we want to see it very badly, there is a lot of excitement, but it is understandably hard to live stream from a helicopter trying to catch a rocket while hundreds of miles offshore. I hope we see it all live in glorious HD, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we got little more than an audio confirmation it happened then see more later.
All pictures are from Rocket Lab’s website