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After a series of delays, Rocket Lab managed to catch one of its Electron missiles by helicopter. Although the operation was halted before the accelerator could land safely, it was a major step toward a reusable launch system, something that made Elon Musk’s SpaceX a popular option for governments and industries.

The Electron rocket is a much smaller vehicle than SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which we regularly see landing propulsively on drones. It needs all its fuel to get payloads to where they need to go, so Rocket Lab chose to use parachutes to make booster recovery easier. By doing so, Electron loses only 10 to 15 percent of its payload capacity.

The test on Monday followed a mission known as “There and Back” as a leap to The Hobbit), in which 34 satellites were placed in orbit. The second stage separated according to plan a few minutes after the launch and continued into space, but the first stage descended back to Earth. In the past, the first stage would fall into the ocean, and that would be all. However, Rocket Lab had a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter in the air to prove that yes, you can catch a rocket accelerator with a helicopter.

During the descent, the booster deployed a braking chute to reduce its speed, followed by a larger main chute that slowed the metal pipe to 10 meters per second. At that moment, the S-92 managed to move and catch the line between the gutters with a hook. The company conducted tests in March that showed the helicopter could lift the 2,200-pound amplifier, but this was the first time it had successfully removed it from the air.

Rocket Lab reports that its pilots followed the protocol and released the accelerator a few minutes later because they were not happy with how it hung under the plane. The original plan was for the helicopter to drop the accelerator on a return ship. Instead, the team pulled the booster out of the water after it exploded. The company says more flight tests should help address the load problem that makes helicopter accelerator recovery as routine as SpaceX’s vertical landings.

A partial or full reusable vehicle has the potential to drastically reduce start-up costs. SpaceX regularly launches the same booster four or five times, saving it from building a new one each time. This contrasts with consumption missiles such as the Atlas V, which cost more than $ 100 million per launch – probably more when configured for the Starliner crew’s delayed capsule. The launch of the Falcon 9 costs just $ 67 million, after a recent rise in prices to take account of inflation. Electronic launches are currently much cheaper at $ 7.5 million, and the ability to reuse them in the first phase can make them even more economical.

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