Rocket Lab Completes Successful Mid-Air Recovery Test

  • General
  • April 9, 2020
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  • 4 minutes read
Rocket Lab’s ‘Electron’ rocket pictured during a lift-off.

image: Rocket Lab

Sometime last year, aerospace company Rocket Lab announced its intention to begin re-using the first stage of its ‘Electron’ rocket as a step towards making the rocket a reusable launch vehicle. Rocket Lab planned to be able to retrieve the first stage of its rocket via a helicopter that’ll attempt to catch it mid-air, a unique but apparently difficult approach. The company just happens to have made a significant step towards achieving its goal, having just announced success in catching the first-stage of its rocket with a helicopter during a test. However, in this case, that part of the rocket was intentionally dropped from a helicopter at a higher altitude and caught by one at a lower altitude, as opposed to the rocket’s stage descending from an actual launch.

Rocket Lab pulled off the successful recovery in early March at airspace in New Zealand. The first stage of its rocket was caught mid-air at an altitude of around 5,000 ft thanks to a specially designed grappling hook attached to a helicopter. The hook is designed to catch the drogue line of a parachute attached to the rocket’s first stage to guide its descent from up in the air. If such a recovery method is perfected, Rocket Lab would be able to re-use the first stage of its rocket for several missions as opposed to building new stages for new missions at it currently does.

The first step in working towards recovery of the ‘Electron’ rocket’s first stage was ensuring its guided re-entry into the atmosphere. Rocket Lab was able to pull that off during two consecutive launches. Ensuring a successful catch is the next step that Rocket Lab has proven is somewhat possible with its successful recovery test. However, a successful recovery is yet to be performed at an actual launch, as a rocket state intentionally dropped from a helicopter would move similarly but not exactly as one descending from an actual launch. Rocket Lab plans to hold a recovery test on an actual launch soon but would attempt to catch the rocket’s first stage through a ship rather than mid-air by helicopter. In such a case, a successful catch is contingent on the rocket stage having a slow descent from the air followed by a soft landing in the ocean. Rocket Lab plans to hold the test later this year.

A video of Rocket Lab’s recovery test is embedded below;

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