Helicopter captures booster stage mid-air in successful Rocket Lab test

AvatarBy Vertical Mag | April 11, 2020

Estimated reading time 3 minutes, 26 seconds.

A helicopter was used to successfully retrieve an Electron rocket test stage from mid-air during a demonstration in New Zealand in early March.

The space systems company Rocket Lab, maker of the Electron rocket for small satellites, announced its plans to experiment with mid-air recovery in August 2019. On April 8, it revealed video of the recent test, conducted before New Zealand enacted strict measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The video shows an Airbus AS350 helicopter carrying the test stage at the end of a long line over the open ocean. The test stage is then released, causing its parachute to deploy.

An Advanced Flight Bell 429 then moves in, using a specially designed capture mechanism — also at the end of a long line — to snag the parachute’s drogue line on the first attempt. The parachute crumples, and the Bell 429 flies the suspended stage back to the landing zone, where the pilot sets it down gently prior to landing.

Electron rocket booster mid-air recovery
Shown here, the Electron booster being flown back to land under the Bell 429. YouTube Screenshot

According to Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck, the successful mid-air recovery test moves the company closer to its goal of increasing launch frequency by eliminating the need to build a new first stage for every mission. With a maximum payload of 225 kilograms (495 pounds), Electron is too small for the type of vertical booster landings performed by SpaceX to be a practical route to reusability.

“Electron has already unlocked access to space for small satellites, but every step closer to reusability is a step closer to even more frequent launch opportunities for our customers,” Beck stated in a press release congratulating his team on the “flawless” mid-air recovery test. “We’re looking forward to pushing the technology even further this year and bringing a flown stage back to the factory.”

In the next phase of recovery testing, currently planned for late 2020, Rocket Lab will attempt to recover a full Electron first stage after launch from the ocean downrange of its Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. In that test, the stage will not be captured by helicopter, but will instead float down under a parachute to the ocean, where it will be collected by a ship.

Rocket Lab’s mid-air recovery test closely resembles one performed several years ago at the MOD West Freugh Range on the southwest coast of Scotland in the U.K. That demonstration of the mid-air retrieval system developed by parachute manufacturer Airborne Systems used two AS350 series helicopters operated by PDG Aviation Services. Lockheed Martin, which is a strategic investor in Rocket Lab, also participated in that earlier demonstration.

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