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Rocket Lab wants to reuse its boosters by catching them with a helicopter

Trevor Mogg

It wasn’t so long ago that talk of bringing a rocket back to Earth in a controlled landing elicited facial expressions ranging from confusion to incredulity. And then along came SpaceX.

Now another company is aiming to replicate SpaceX’s ability to reuse rockets for multiple launches, though it’s working on a rather different way of bringing them back to terra firma.

Whereas SpaceX’s system uses engine power and complex software to ensure a soft landing for its Falcon 9 rocket, California-based Rocket Lab wants to use a helicopter to “catch” the first stage of its Electron rocket as it floats toward the ground with a parachute. The Electron is considerably smaller and lighter than the hefty Falcon 9 rocket, enabling the possibility of helicopter intervention.

If Rocket Lab achieves its goal of creating a reusable system with its Electron rocket, it’ll be only the second company after SpaceX to do so.

Rocket Lab was founded by New Zealander Peter Beck in 2006 as a small-satellite launcher for customers that in the last couple of years have included NASA and DARPA, among others. Creating a reusable rocket system allows a space company to dramatically reduce operating costs as it doesn’t have to constantly invest in building new boosters. It also enables a faster turnaround time for more frequent launches, further lowering overall costs.

The plan

Beck discussed the ambitious helicopter plan at this week’s Small Satellite Conference in Utah, revealing that Rocket Lab’s recent missions have been gathering data to help his team achieve the delicate act of plucking a falling booster out of the sky.

According to Rocket Lab’s video (top), on its return to Earth after launch the booster would deploy a parachute together with a tether kept in a horizontal position by a small balloon. The approaching helicopter would then grab the booster by using a specially made device to hook the tether, after which everything is carried to a waiting ship.

A date for testing the system hasn’t been revealed, but a first attempt could be made sometime next year. In the meantime, the team will also attempt to reuse boosters that come down in the sea.

Frequent and reliable access to orbit

“From day one, Rocket Lab’s mission has been to provide frequent and reliable access to orbit for small satellites,” Beck said in a statement released this week. “Having delivered on this with Electron launching satellites to orbit almost every month [since November 2018], we’re now establishing the reusability program to further increase launch frequency.”

The market for small-satellite missions is a growing one, with competitors that include U.S.-based SpaceX, Virgin Orbit, and Firefly Aerospace all keen for a piece of the pie. Indeed, SpaceX this week launched a new program designed to make it easier for companies to launch small satellites into space.

Rocket Lab has said that over time, its technology will help to deploy thousands of small satellites for gathering data than will help humans to “better monitor our planet and manage our impact on it,” adding that satellites launched using its rocket will perform “vital social and commercial services, including monitoring deforestation, global internet from space, improved weather prediction, and crop monitoring.”