Rocket Lab to attempt mid-air recovery of descending booster

Doing anything Friday night? Fancy watching someone try to catch a rocket with a helicopter?

Rocket Lab is to attempt the recovery of an Electron rocket tomorrow night, snagging the booster as it descends back to Earth by parachute.

The launch, which is due to take place at 2235 UTC on April 29, is the company's 26th and has been dubbed "There And Back Again" for reasons to delight both Tolkien fans and reusable rocket aficionados alike.

Thirty-four satellites are also due to be deployed into a sun-synchronous orbit during the mission, but it is the attempted recovery of the first stage that is most eye-catching. Rocket Lab has demonstrated that the booster can survive the forces of re-entry and has performed pretty much every step required for recovery, other than actually catching it mid-air.

Unlike SpaceX's Falcon 9 or Rocket Lab's own proposed Neutron booster, the relatively smaller Electron cannot perform a propulsive landing. Instead, the first stage undertakes a set of maneuvers to help it survive the forces of atmospheric re-entry.

Heat shielding has been added where needed (based on the experience of recent tests) and a parachute will further slow the descent. A modified Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will then (hopefully) catch the stage before its critical components hit the ocean.

Company boss Peter Beck told The Register in a recent conversation that the plan was to get the stage back to the factory for inspection; Rocket Lab has already fished several out of the ocean during its testing and been generally pleased with what it had found. Capturing the stage before it reaches the water is the next step toward reusability, a move that will both cut costs and help increase the company's launch cadence.

The idea is not as outlandish as it might seem. The returning film canisters of 1960s Corona reconnaissance satellites were caught by aircraft. As recently as this century, NASA attempted to catch the sample return capsule of its Genesis spacecraft, but a parachute failure resulted in the precious particles smacking into Utah.

We're particularly taken with a proposal in the 1960s to catch a Saturn V first stage with a ridiculously large helicopter. Sadly, this idea didn't make it beyond the proposal stage. Still, Rocket Lab's attempt is hardly short on ambition.

Should tomorrow's attempt from Pad A at the company's New Zealand Launch Complex 1 be delayed, further orbital slots are available later in April and May. ®

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