Partial success as helicopter catches then drops rocket booster in key reusability test

An Electron rocket blasts off from Rocket Lab's launch complex in New Zealand in 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS
A helicopter latches on to a dummy rocket stage in a test off the coast of New Zeland. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Small launch firm Rocket Lab USA on Monday (May 2) captured a falling rocket stage out of the air with a helicopter before dropping it in the ocean, appearing to achieve a partially successful test of the company's novel cost-savings approach to recovering used rockets for multiple mission to space.

The demonstration, involving parachutes and a long cable hanging from a helicopter, sought to check off a key milestone for the Long Beach, California-based company as it ventures to slash the cost of sending things into space, an industry trend pioneered by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX.

After lifting off to send 34 satellites toward orbit at 10.50 am (6.50am Singapore time) in New Zealand, the Long Beach, California-based company's four-story-tall Electron booster stage fell back through Earth's atmosphere and deployed a series of parachutes to brake its speed.

At high altitudes above the South Pacific, just off the New Zealand coast, a helicopter hanging a long, vertical cable from its underside was steered by two pilots over the booster, which had stretched to its side a capture line as it descended under a parachute at roughly 32kmh.

The helicopter cable latched onto the booster's capture line, as seen on the company's live stream, prompting cheers and applause from Rocket Lab engineers in the company's mission control centre in Long Beach.

But the cheers from engineers turned to audible groans as the helicopter pilots were forced to release the rocket from the cable and dunk it into the Pacific Ocean after noticing "different load characteristics" than what had been experienced during previous capture tests, a Rocket Lab spokesperson later confirmed.

A fully successful test would have involved carrying the rocket booster back to land or onto a barge without having it touch ocean water.

"No big deal," Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck wrote on Twitter.

"The rocket splashed down safely and the ship is loading it now."

It was not immediately clear whether Rocket Lab planned to reuse the booster.

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