WELLINGTON, New Zealand – Using a helicopter to capture a falling rocket is such a complex task that Peter Beck likens it to “supersonic ballet.”
Rocket Lab, the company Beck founded, partially tackled the feat on Tuesday as it insisted on making its small Electron reusable missiles. But after briefly catching the spent missile, the helicopter crew was quickly forced to release it again for safety reasons, and it 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. Rocket Lab has a history of supporting the US intelligence community and the US military.
The Electron rocket was launched on Tuesday morning and sent 34 satellites into orbit before the main accelerator section began to fall to Earth. His descent was slowed to about 10 meters per second by parachute. The helicopter crew then jumped into action, hanging a long fishing line with a hook under the helicopter to attach the parachute ropes to the accelerator. The crew caught the missile, but the helicopter’s load exceeded the parameters of tests and simulations, so they dropped it again.
The emotion train was caught in a live broadcast of the event, with mission control people applauding and applauding as the rocket was caught, only to elicit a collective gasp and sigh about 20 seconds later.
However, Beck hailed the mission as a success, saying that almost everything went according to plan and that the unexpected load problem was a small detail that would soon be fixed – “nothing in the scheme of things”.
“They got a great catch. They just didn’t like the way the cargo felt, “Beck told the helicopter crew in a conference call after the launch.
He said a detailed analysis should reveal the reasons for the discrepancy in load characteristics. He said he still hoped the company could save some or all of the spent rocket booster, even though it was submerged in salt water, which they hoped to avoid.
Rocket Lab called its latest mission “There and Back” – a reference to the film trilogy “The Hobbit”, which was shot in New Zealand.
The company described the brief capture in the air 1980 meters from the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter as a milestone. It says using its missiles will allow the company to increase the number of launches it makes and reduce costs.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is designing the first reusable orbital rocket, the Falcon 9.