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Rocket Lab helicopter catches but drops rocket booster in first reuse attempt

The Electron booster comes into view of the company’s helicopter for the catch.

Rocket Lab

Space company Rocket Lab briefly caught its Electron rocket using a helicopter after a launch for the first time on Monday, but released the booster and dropped it into the ocean before recovering it.

“After the catch the helicopter pilot noticed different load characteristics than we’ve experienced in testing … at his discretion, the pilot offloaded the [booster] for a successful splashdown where it has been recovered by our [ship] for transport back to our factory,” Rocket Lab senior communications advisor Murielle Baker said on the company’s webcast.

“The [Electron booster] is in great condition though, and we look forward to assessing it in detail when it’s back here in the factory,” Baker added. “This is a monumental step forward in our program to make electron a reusable launch vehicle.”

The company’s Electron rocket launched from Rocket Lab’s private launch facility in New Zealand. Catching the rocket booster with Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter and returning it was the secondary goal of the mission.

The primary goal of the mission was achieved, with the rocket deploying 34 small satellites into low Earth orbit for a collection of customers, including Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight Inc., and Unseenlabs.

The company’s Electron rocket stands on its launchpad in New Zealand

Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab wants to make its rocket boosters reusable, like those of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but with a very different approach. While SpaceX uses the rocket’s engines to slow down during reentry and deploys wide legs to land on large pads, Rocket Lab uses the atmosphere to slow the rocket before deploying a parachute and attempt to grab it with a helicopter.

The company conducted a variety of tests over the last couple years as it worked on the mid-air recovery concept. Rocket Lab has successfully returned two rocket boosters after its most recent launches, navigating them back through the intense reentry of the Earth’s atmosphere and splashing them down in the Pacific Ocean.

By adding reusability to its boosters, Rocket Lab would both be able to launch more often while simultaneously decreasing the material cost of each mission.

“I think anybody who’s not developing a reusable launch vehicle at this point in time is developing a dead-end product because it’s just so obvious that this is a fundamental approach that has to be baked in from day one,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in November.

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