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Rocket Lab Aborts Second Attempt at Catching a Rocket With a Helicopter

The company lost communication with the descending Electron booster and opted to pull its helicopter away from the recovery zone.

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Rocket Lab’s first attempt to catch its Electron rocket mid-air took place in May.
Rocket Lab’s first attempt to catch its Electron rocket mid-air took place in May.
Screenshot: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab gave it a second go at its dangerous stunt: catching a rocket mid-air using a large helicopter. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.

Update 3:20 p.m. ET: Rocket Lab lost communication with its Electron rocket upon its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the company wrote on Twitter. Although there was no helicopter catch attempt, the mission did successfully deploy its payload in orbit and the booster was recovered from the ocean by a vessel.

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Update 1:50 p.m. ET: The Electron rocket took off at 1:28 p.m. ET, successfully placing its payload in a nominal transfer orbit. However, several minutes after the main engine cutoff, as the booster was descending with its extended hook, the broadcast announced that the helicopter would no longer attempt to catch the rocket booster mid-air and that it would perform an ocean splashdown instead. The reason for the aborted attempt has not yet been disclosed.

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Original post follows.

The company will attempt to catch its Electron rocket after its upcoming launch during a window that opens at 1:15 p.m. ET on Friday, November 4. The rocket will take off from Pad B at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, and a helicopter will be ready to snag it as it falls back towards Earth.

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The daring mid-air catch will be broadcast, and you can tune in to the action live. Rocket Lab will begin a live stream of the “Catch Me If You Can” mission about 20 minutes before the scheduled launch through its website. You can also watch the launch and attempted catch at the live stream below.

Rocket Lab - Catch Me If You Can Launch

This is the company’s second attempt to pull off the mid-air rocket catch, and it’s aiming to get it right this time. On May 2, a customized Sikorsky S-92 succeeded in catching the Electron rocket as it fell back to Earth following its liftoff but ended up dropping it in the Pacific Ocean. The pilots onboard the helicopter noticed “different load characteristics” than those experienced during previous test flights and decided to drop the rocket just to be safe.

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Rocket Lab needs to recover its rocket before it touches the water to investigate its potential for reusability during future launches. During Friday’s launch, the company’s Electron rocket will be carrying a single satellite known as MATS, or Mesospheric Airglow/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy. Funded by the Swedish National Space Agency, the satellite will study gravity waves in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The rocket’s second stage will deploy the payload to orbit, while its booster, or first stage engine, will separate from the second stage and fall back to Earth with the help of a parachute. A helicopter will be ready to catch the rocket by snagging the parachute line through a large hook.

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Rocket Lab is hoping to reduce costs of upcoming launches by reusing its Electron rocket’s first stage the same way SpaceX reuses its Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX’s rocket, however, lands vertically on landing pads or offshore platforms rather than being hooked onto a hovering helicopter.

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