Watch: Rocket Lab will attempt mid-air helicopter snatch today

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Rocket Lab will attempt a mid-air capture of one of its Electron rockets for the first time time later today after a series of weather delays at Mahia.

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As the first stage of the Electron falls back to Earth, a customised twin-engined Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will try to capture its parachute line with a hook as it falls at a speed of 10 metres a second.

All going well, the mid-air snatch will take place about 150 nautical miles off the East Coast. The helicopter will then ferry the dangling Electron back to shore, where it will be analysed as part of Rocket Lab’s ongoing plan to develop a reusable rocket – which is better for the planet, and holds down costs.

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Founder and CEO Peter Beck says the mid-air capture, while difficult, will mean less wear-and-tear on the Electron than the previously used retrieval-by-ship after an ocean splashdown.

Rocket Lab’s next rocket – the much larger Neutron, due to launch in 2024 – will be designed to be reusable from the get-go. It will be designed to land back on the launch pad after a mission and from there it would be returned to a production complex for refurbishment and relaunch.

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Another view of the S92. Photo / Supplied

Beck says that’s a step up on Space X’s Falcon – whose three boosters self-land but on a pad at sea.

The helicopter retrieval attempt begins an intense period for Rocket Lab, which next month is due to stage New Zealand’s first lunar launch from Mahia.

Rocket Lab shares, which have been caught in the recent market downswing, were recently trading at US$8.21, below their Nasdaq listing price (US$10).

The ocean-retrieval technique, which has been used for three previous Rocket Lab missions. Photo / Supplied

An Electron Rocket will blast a Nasa microsat into orbit, then one of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft will ferry it into orbit around the moon.

Recovery mission profile

• Approximately an hour before lift-off, Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 will move into position in the capture zone, approximately 150 nautical miles off New Zealand’s coast, to await launch.

• At T+2:30 minutes after lift-off, Electron’s first and second stages will separate per a standard mission profile. Electron’s second stage will continue on to orbit for payload deployment and its first stage will begin its descent back to Earth reaching speeds of almost 8300km/h. The stage will reach temperatures of around 2400C during its descent.

• After deploying a drogue parachute at 13km altitude, the main parachute will be extracted at around 6km altitude to dramatically slow the stage to 36km/h.

• As the stage enters the capture zone, the helicopter will try to capture the parachute line via a hook.

• Once the stage is captured and secured, the helicopter will transport it back to land where Rocket Lab will thoroughly analyse it and assess its suitability for reflight.

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