Rocket Lab Plans To Catch Its Reusable Rockets In Midair With A Helicopter

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Rocket Lab hopes to catch its rocket booster mid-air with the help of a helicopter (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Two years ago, aerospace manufacturer SpaceX stunned the world by landing its reusable booster engine — the biggest and most costly part of the rocket used to power spacecrafts into low orbit — on an autonomous drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Now, California-based startup Rocket Lab, has come up with an even bolder idea: using parachutes and helicopters to capture the returning booster, or first stage as it is often called, in midair!

Rocket Lab's decision to avoid the “propulsive,” or vertical, landing used by SpaceX stems from its business model to keep its Electron rockets small and cost-effective. Standing just 57 feet (17 meters) tall, they are designed to deliver smaller payloads of about 500 lbs (225 kilograms) for a "mere" $5 million a liftoff. In contrast, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which measures 229 feet (70 m) tall and can lift up to 50,000 pounds, costs about $62 million a mission. "We're not in the business of building medium-sized launch vehicles," Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said. "We're in the business of building small launch vehicles for dedicated customers to get on orbit frequently."

Rocket Lab's small rockets are designed to carry relatively light payloads into Space (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Similar to other rockets, the Electron splits into two once it reaches outer space. While the top part, carrying the cargo, continues on to its final destination, the booster engine falls back to Earth. The company envisions deploying a ballute — a parachute-like braking device — to quickly slow down the booster's supersonic speed upon its reentry into the atmosphere. Once it slows down to a reasonable pace, a helicopter will grab the rocket from midair and deposit it onto an awaiting ship to transport to the company's headquarters for repair and relaunch. According to Beck, “The grand goal here is if we can capture the vehicle in wonderful condition, in theory, we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up, and go again.”

The idea, still in the concept stage, will become one step closer to becoming a reality during Electron's next launch, scheduled for sometime around November 25, 2019. Though the company will not attempt to recover the rocket on this flight, they will carefully observe its reentry to determine the optimal way to slow down its speed. “We’re doing basically everything except popping parachutes,” Beck said. "Engineers will monitor the first stage as it reenters, testing its ability to guide its descent."

Rocket Lab plans to start testing capturing rocket boosters in midair in November 2019 (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab is not the only launch-service provider hoping to capture its booster engines in midair. Colorado-based United Launch Alliance plans to use a hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator to slow down its engines upon reentry, before deploying a parachute and helicopter to swoop them up.

Resources: Space.com, Wired.com, endgadget.com

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69 Comments
  • ey-olm
    ey-olmTuesday, December 17, 2019 at 2:07 pm
    Interesting
    • abyscat
      abyscatMonday, December 16, 2019 at 11:25 am
      nobody will die because the rocket is manual controlled and the electron rocket has been used 8 times and has never failed
      • papasgoodboy
        papasgoodboyMonday, December 16, 2019 at 11:13 am
        i thinkk it will work
        • lola172
          lola172Friday, December 13, 2019 at 6:18 am
          im scared of hights
          • cifotyti-157108450045
            cifotyti-157108450045Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at 10:31 am
            And the SaturnV Rocket,right?
            • allen4371
              allen4371Monday, December 2, 2019 at 8:56 am
              I remember Apollo 11 blasting off to the moon. Cool, right?
              • abyscat
                abyscatMonday, December 16, 2019 at 11:28 am
                that was in 1969
                • cifotyti-157108450045
                  cifotyti-157108450045Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at 10:28 am
                  Yeah iluv it
                • fortniteboss101
                  fortniteboss101Monday, December 2, 2019 at 5:28 am
                  So cool the heli is on water it is cool to see it come down
                  • fortniteboss101
                    fortniteboss101Monday, December 2, 2019 at 5:22 am
                    Ay that is so cool. I just don't what is to fall and make people die. Not cool Man.
                    • jonathanjoestar
                      jonathanjoestarFriday, December 13, 2019 at 7:31 am
                      literally nobody would die ever
                    • smashsomehash
                      smashsomehashFriday, November 29, 2019 at 7:13 pm
                      That is so interesting. But, wouldn't it make the helicopter fall? That's not cool man. It will kill the pilot because he (or she) will drown.
                      • abyscat
                        abyscatMonday, December 16, 2019 at 11:27 am
                        the helicopter is powerful and the booster is very lite
                        • goldbird09
                          goldbird09Sunday, December 1, 2019 at 7:39 pm
                          Well, The helicopter will have enough lift to be able to lift the booster, take in mind that the booster burns all of its fuel while launching the rocket, and they plan to make it out of lighter materials. If you're talking about the rocket pilots the electron won't have any pilot. They will control it from mission control, if you're talking about the helicopter pilot, then lookup. ^
                        • bonbon1653
                          bonbon1653Thursday, November 28, 2019 at 8:39 am
                          this is my report to my teacher.They think that a helicopter can reusalb rockets in mediar.It will tack some time to do it but that is what it is adout...it is so weard.Ahelicopter will grd on to this thing that comes out of it and it will grad it that is the way they will save the rockets and people.