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Rocket Lab catches rocket mid-air using helicopter before dropping it into the ocean

While the rocket capture was brief, Rocket Lab has claimed it was a 'monumental step forward' in helping the company make Electron a reusable launch vehicle.
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Written by Aimee Chanthadavong on
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Image: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab has declared "mission success" for its 26th Electron launch, following the deployment of 34 satellites to a sun synchronous orbit and using a helicopter to capture -- for a brief moment -- one of its rockets in mid-air as it returned from space.

"We witnessed a spectacular catch of Electron's first stage by our helicopter pilot," Rocket Lab senior communications advisor Murielle Baker reported during the launch livestream.

"This is a monumental step forward in our program to make Electron a reusable launch vehicle."

The helicopter recovery mission was a first for the company, as it works towards achieving its ultimate goal of making Electron the first reusable orbital smallsat launcher. 

The company used a customised Sikorsky S-92 -- a large twin-engine helicopter typically used in offshore oil and gas transport, as well as search and rescue operations -- for the recovery mission. An hour prior to lift-off, the helicopter moved into position in the capture zone, about 150 nautical miles off New Zealand's coast. 

At an altitude of 8.3 miles, the rocket deployed a drogue parachute to dramatically slow its speed. 

Once it entered the capture zone, the plan was for the helicopter to grab the parachute line with a hook, before the helicopter returned to land where Rocket Lab could assess its suitability for reflight. However, after the catch, the helicopter pilot noticed "different load characteristics" to those the company had experienced during testing.

"At his discretion, the pilot offloaded the stage for a successful splashdown, where it has been recovered by our vessel for transport back to our factory," Baker said.

"The stage is in great condition though, and we look forward to assessing it in detail when it's back here in the factory, and of course, getting ready for more helicopter catches soon."

For rest of the mission, dubbed "There And Back Again", Rocket Lab launched 36 satellites for its customers including Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight Inc, and Unseenlabs. This latest launch brings the company's total number of satellite launches by Electron to 146. 

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