Rocket Lab completes mid-air capture in 26th Electron mission

2 min read

Rocket Lab has launched its 26th Electron mission, involving a successful mid-air capture of its Electron rocket booster with a helicopter for the first time.

Rocket Lab

The ‘There and Back Again’ mission saw Rocket Lab deploy 34 satellites to orbit, now having deployed a total of 146 satellites with the Electron launch vehicle. It launched from Pad A at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 10.49am NZST, 3 May 2022.

After launching to space, Electron’s first stage returned to Earth under a parachute. At 65,000ft, Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter met the returning stage and captured the parachute line using a hook on a long line. 

Rocket Lab described the mid-air capture as a major milestone in its pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites.

After the catch, the helicopter pilot reportedly detected different local characteristics than previously experienced in testing and offloaded the stage for a successful splashdown. The stage is being loaded onto Rocket Lab’s recovery vessel for transport back to its production complex, for analysis and assessment for re-flight.

This followed successful recovery operations from Rocket Lab’s 16th, 20th and 22nd missions, which saw Electron's first stage execute a controlled ocean splashdown before being returned to the production complex.

Like those missions, a reaction control system re-oriented the first stage to an ideal angle for re-entry during There and Back Again, enabling the stage to survive the heat and pressure during its descent back to Earth.

A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and stabilise the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometres of descent. There and Back Again is the first time a helicopter catch attempt was introduced to recovery operations, and Rocket Lab said the mission will inform future helicopter captures.

“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly, so I am incredibly proud of the stellar efforts of our Recovery Team and all of our engineers who made this mission and our first catch a success.”

Beck said next steps will be to assess the stage and determine what changes to make to the system, and procedures for the next helicopter catch and eventual re-flight.

There and Back Again deployed satellites for Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight and Unseenlabs

Among the payloads deployed were satellites designed to monitor light pollution, demonstrate space junk removal technologies, improve power restraints in small satellites, validate technology for sustainable satellite systems that can avoid collisions with untrackable space objects, enable internet from space and build upon a maritime surveillance constellation.