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Rocket Lab, a start-up building small orbital rockets, launched another successful mission on Friday – but it failed in its effort to pick up its rocket booster as it fell towards Earth. The company deployed a helicopter with a hook, but could not catch the propellant.
The wild spectacle is part of the company’s plans to save money by salvaging and reusing rocket parts after sending satellites into space.
The main objective of the mission achieved its goal without a hitch. The company’s $7.5 million Electron rocket blasted off from its launch site in southern New Zealand at 1:27 p.m. ET on Friday. The spacecraft carried a scientific research satellite in orbit for the Swedish National Space Agency.
Then, after the rocket’s first-stage booster – the uppermost and lowest part of the rocket that provides initial liftoff thrust – finishes firing and separates from the rocket’s second-stage, it began to fall back to Earth and deployed a parachute to slow its descent. Rocket Lab positioned a modified Sikorsky S-92 helicopter to intercept it mid-descent, aiming to snag the thruster by its ropes.
The helicopter pilot had about 10 minutes from the time the booster’s parachute deployed to attempt to swoop in for capture, Rocket Lab communications manager Murielle Baker said during the live stream. of the launch.
But the rocket never appeared, and Baker confirmed live that the helicopter pilots had said the propellant would not return dry to the factory. In a tweet, the company reported that there was a data loss issue during rocket reentry.
“We have the backup option of an ocean splash,” Baker said. “We will bring you updates on this ocean operation in the hours ahead.
“If we did this today, it wouldn’t be a failure for our recovery program. In fact, we’ve done several during our missions to date, and most recently we were able to re-ignite a Rutherford engine that had been returned from the ocean,” Baker added.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck noted that it’s best to catch the rocket in the air to keep it dry.
This event marked the company’s second attempt to use its new helicopter capture method. After the first attempt, in May, the hook-armed helicopter managed to snag the rocket in midair only for the pilots to intentionally drop it moments later for safety reasons.
“Our first helicopter take just a few months ago proved that we could do what we set out to do with Electron, and we look forward to bringing the helicopter back to market and improving the reusability even further. our rocket bringing back a dry stage for the first time,” Beck said in a statement ahead of Friday’s launch.
He had said after May’s attempt that it was still worth the time and money to figure it out.
And he noted earlier this year that first-stage rocket booster is about 80% of the cost of an all-new rocket, so figuring out how to capture them and reuse them safely after launch would allow the company to save a lot of money. Compared to the millions of dollars needed to make a new rocket, renting the helicopter to attempt recovery only costs about $4,000 or $5,000 an hour, Beck noted.
Much remains unclear about how Rocket Lab will ultimately reuse its rockets.
It took SpaceX several years to figure out how to safely and efficiently recover, refurbish, and fly its first-stage boosters. Beck cited the company as a model for how Rocket Lab would proceed.