Rocket Lab wants to catch its spent rockets with a helicopter


Watching SpaceX Falcon rockets gracefully touch down on the launch pad after delivering their payload to orbit never gets old. More importantly, reusing the rockets allows the company to greatly cut back on costs, thus making spaceflight more accessible. Now, Rocket Lab wants to mimic its competition. Sort of.

The small satellite launcher will indeed attempt to reuse its rockets. However, it will use a helicopter to catch them as they fall back to Earth rather than landing them. Whether or not the interesting strategy will pay off is yet to be seen.

What a Catch

The company’s Electron Rocket features a unique battery that powers its various machinery. Rocket Lab hopes that this technology will make relaunching the vehicle extremely easy should it be recovered cleanly.

Manage your supply chain from home with Sourcengine

Of course, the recovery is the hard part. After reaching orbit, the Electron breaks apart into two pieces. As usual, the upper portion continues into space to deliver the payload to its destination. However, the lower segment will then fall back towards Earth. As it enters the atmosphere, the remainder of the rocket will deploy a massive parachute to slow its descent.

So far, the plan sounds pretty normal. However, at this point in the process, a helicopter will be taking flight from a ship positioned strategically in the ocean. It will fly to meet the falling rocket in mid-air and then attempt to catch the parachute with the rocket still attached. If that works, it will fly the rocket back to the ship and land it safely on board.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck says, “The grand goal here is if we can capture the vehicle in wonderful condition, in theory, we should be able to put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up, and go again.”

Eating Crow

Interestingly, reusing its rockets is something Rocket Lab said it would never do. Even so, it isn’t doing it for the same reason SpaceX is. Beck’s primary goal is to increase the number of flights sent up every year.

Though the company just launched its first rocket in 2017 it has launched three so far this year. However, it is currently working on a second launch site in Virginia to help boost its numbers. Rocket Lab’s long-term goal is to send a whopping 120 rockets into space annually. Should it meet that goal, it would be an unprecedented accomplishment. Attempting to reuse the Electron rockets will certainly help.

Nevertheless, Beck is passionate about the direction his company is going. “Launch frequency is the thing that is going to change this industry and quite frankly, going to change the world,” he says, “Because if we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities.”

Whether or not the rocket startup reaches its launch goal, the new strategy for reusing rockets is rather interesting. Hopefully there will be some video footage of the first attempt later this year.