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New Video Shows Helicopter Catching Rocket Booster in Midair

Inspired by SpaceX, the U.S. startup is hoping to reuse its Electron rocket boosters to reduce launch costs.

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New video from RocketLab shows the historic booster catch.
Gif: RocketLab/Gizmodo

Rocket Lab did something earlier this month that had never been done before: catch a falling booster rocket with a helicopter. The private aerospace company has released new, adrenaline-pumping footage of this momentous achievement.

RocketLab posted the two-and-a-half minute video on its Twitter account last Wednesday, showcasing the recently concluded “There And Back Again” mission. The company’s Electron Rocket blasted off from its picturesque launch complex in New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula on May 2. The rocket’s first stage booster was later caught by a customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter and then deliberately dropped due to safety concerns.

The video begins with the helicopter flying off its pad, followed by the Electron rocket launch. The rocket’s first stage (the first of its two engines) separated shortly after takeoff, while the second stage continued its journey to space, where it successfully delivered 34 satellites.

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The video shows a dizzying POV perspective of the booster diving back toward Earth at speeds reaching 5,000 miles per hour (8,050 km/hr). Two parachutes were deployed during the free fall, slowing the rocket’s descent to about 22 miles per hour (35 km/hr).

The video then shifts to the helicopter’s perspective. Using a long line capped with a hook, the helicopter can be seen snagging the parachute when the booster was some 6,500 feet (1,980 meters) above the surface. The two different views of the booster catch are truly incredible to watch—the first as the helicopter crew waits for the perfect opportunity to catch the falling rocket, and the second from the rocket’s perspective as it gets picked up by the helicopter.

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Despite these heroics, the booster was dropped into the ocean after the pilots noticed “different load characteristics” than those experienced during previous test flights, according to a Rocket Lab release.

Dramatic stuff, for sure, but the “There And Back Again” mission wasn’t meant for show; the company plans to reuse its Electron rocket boosters for future launches, similar to how SpaceX re-uses its Falcon 9 rocket. But where SpaceX lands its boosters on landing pads and offshore platforms, RocketLab will catch its boosters midair with the help of sturdy helicopters.