New Zealand rocket caught but then dropped by helicopter
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Using a helicopter to catch a falling rocket is such a complex task that Peter Beck likens it to a “supersonic ballet.”
Rocket Lab, the company that Beck founded, partially pulled off the feat Tuesday as it pushes to make its small Electron rockets reusable. After briefly catching the rocket, a helicopter crew was forced to let it go once more for safety reasons. The rocket fell into the Pacific Ocean, where it was picked up by a waiting boat.
The California-based company regularly launches 18-meter (59-foot) rockets from the remote Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand to deliver satellites into space.
On Tuesday, the Electron rocket was launched in the morning and sent 34 satellites into orbit before the main booster section began falling to Earth. Its descent was slowed to about 10 meters (33 feet) per second by a parachute.
The helicopter crew was able to get into action by dangling a line with a hook under the helicopter in order to grab the booster’s parachute lines. The crew captured the rocket, but the load on it exceeded the parameters of simulations and tests so they had to jettisone it again.
The roller coaster of emotions was caught in a livestream of the event, with people at mission control cheering and clapping as the rocket was caught, only to let out a collective gasp and sigh about 20 seconds later.
Still, Beck hailed the mission as a success, saying that almost everything went to plan and that the unexpected load issue was a tiny detail which would soon be fixed, a “nothing in the scheme of things.”
“They got a great catch. Beck spoke out about the helicopter crew after the launch, saying that they didn’t like how the load felt.
He stated that a detailed analysis would reveal the reasons behind the differences in load characteristics. He stated that he still believed the company could salvage some or all the spent rocket boosters, despite it being submerged in salt water, which they had hoped to avoid.
Rocket Lab dubbed its latest mission “There and Back Again” — a reference the movie trilogy “The Hobbit”, which was shot in New Zealand.
The company described the brief midair capture at 1,980 meters (6,500 feet) by the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter as a milestone. The company claims that making its rockets reusable will allow it to increase the number and decrease costs. Elon Musk’s SpaceX company created the Falcon 9.
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