How Rocket Lab Is Using a Helicopter To Catch Rocket Parts Out of the Sky

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

How Rocket Lab Is Using a Helicopter To Catch Rocket Parts Out of the Sky
Courtesy of Rocket Lab

Update, April 29: Rocket Lab has delayed its There and Back Again mission to “no earlier than May 1,” citing weather conditions.

This isn’t the plot of the latest Michael Bay film: Rocket Lab will use a helicopter to catch a nearly 40-foot rocket booster out of the sky.


It may sound like an action stunt, but it’s a key step toward the Long Beach-based aerospace company’s goal of competing with SpaceX and offering fully reusable rockets. While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket uses extra fuel to reignite its engines for a soft landing back on Earth , Rocket Lab is hoping that it can recover its launch boosters as they fall in order to save costs.

The startup’s Tolkein-themed There and Back Again mission—originally planned for Friday but now delayed to “no earlier than May 1” due to weather conditions—will launch 34 satellites into orbit for commercial customers including Spaceflight, Astrix Aeronautics and Unseenlabs. It’s what happens after the rocket is launched, however, that Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and his investors will most closely watch.

Here’s how it will go down: The booster will detach from Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket after it lifts off from the company’s New Zealand launch site. As it descends to Earth, a series of parachutes will unfurl in waves to curb its speed. As the booster descends, a customized Lockheed Martin Sikorsky S-92 helicopter equipped with a capture line and hook will fly by and, hopefully, snatch the booster out of the air—delivering it safely home for analysis and future use.

In the past, Rocket Lab has gone the conventional route and trawled the sea for boosters that fell into the ocean after launch, but Beck and his team are betting that the helicopter catch is a more effective and efficient way to reclaim parts. Rocket Lab ran a successful test and caught a dummy booster earlier this week; now, it’s time to see if it can pull off the real thing.

Rocket Lab will air a livestream of the mission on YouTube and its website. The company also usually provides mission status updates on its Twitter page.

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