A private company is preparing for the ultimate stunt in rocketry: attempting to catch a rocket mid-air as it returns to Earth from space using a large helicopter. The mission is scheduled to leave on April 22.
The Electron rocket from New Zealand will carry 34 small satellites from commercial operators. A helicopter will catch the rocket booster mid-air, instead of sticking the landing, in order to make it easier to return.
How do you get a rocket booster in the air? The first stage of Electron will separate from the second stage about two minutes after liftoff. The first stage will fall back towards Earth at a speed of 5000 miles per hour, reaching a temperature of 4,352 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Electron booster will deploy a parachute at an altitude of 8.3 miles, and a second parachute at 3.7 miles, to slow it down to 22 miles per hour. The helicopter is ready to grab the parachute line through a hook.
This stunt isn't just about showing off. If the booster is caught mid-air, it will not cause water damage to the hardware, which is important for future launches.
The design of the Electron rocket was influenced by attempts to recover three rocket boosters from the ocean. Multiple successful mid-air recoveries with replicas of the Electron booster have been performed by the company.
Trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no easy task, according to Peter Beck, the founder and CEO of Rocket Lab.
The only other major rocket with a reuse is the Falcon 9. The rocket is designed to be able to fly 10 times, and has an automated landing sequence that allows the rocket booster to touch down on Earth on an offshore platform or a landing pad.
The Electron rocket is much smaller than the Falcon 9, which is over 200 feet tall, but Rocket Lab wants to be the second company to use a re-usable booster stage.