Watch a Sikorsky S-92 Snatch a Rocket Right Out of the Sky

Photo credit: Rocket Lab
Photo credit: Rocket Lab
  • Today, New Zealand-based launch provider Rocket Lab will use a helicopter to snag spent rocket stages as they pirouette back down to Earth.

  • Liftoff is scheduled for 6:35 p.m. ET from one of the company’s New Zealand launch pads.

  • Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is too small to use retrorockets to return to Earth.

This evening, New Zealand-based space firm Rocket Lab will launch 34 satellites into Earth’s orbit. Shortly after its payload deploys, and if all goes according to plan, Rocket Lab will attempt to demonstrate a brand-new way to capture rocket stages for reuse.

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket both barrel back toward the ground using retrorockets, or engines that help the rocket decelerate safely and quickly. Rocket Lab’s 59-foot-long Electron rocket is too small to carry enough fuel for a smooth ride back to Earth on a retrorocket, though. (The company’s larger Newton rocket, scheduled to debut in 2024, was designed to be reusable from the jump and will use retrorockets.) This meant Rocket Lab had to get creative.

Enter the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter. Rocket Lab commissioned the American-made twin-engine helicopter (the president’s chopper, Marine One, is also a Sikorsky S-92) to capture Electron rocket stages as they float back to Earth’s surface via two drogue parachutes. A grappling hook attached to the helicopter will snag one of the chute’s strings and safely ferry the booster back home.

In order for this to work, Rocket Lab had to ensure that the stages could handle re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. They redesigned the boosters and added a robust heat shield that protects them from the blistering temperatures.

Photo credit: Rocket Lab
Photo credit: Rocket Lab

“Trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no easy feat, we’re absolutely threading the needle here, but pushing the limits with such complex operations is in our DNA,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in an April 5 statement. Earlier this year, the company successfully tested the methodology with a stage 1 mass simulator, or dummy booster.

Rocket Lab’s “There and Back Again” mission, as it’s called, will mark the 26th launch of its Electron rocket. In total, according to a report from IEEE Spectrum, it has launched 112 satellites. If the weather holds, the rocket will launch from one of the company’s two pads along New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. (They also have plans to launch from Wallops Spaceport in Virginia.)

Liftoff is scheduled for 6:35 p.m. ET. Once the rocket deposits its payload—34 commercial satellites—the focus will shift to recapturing its first stage. A live-stream of the launch will begin 20 minutes before liftoff.

To be clear, midair recovery is not exactly new. In fact, the U.S. Air Force used this method to snag the remnants of spy satellites returning to Earth with enticing footage of critical Soviet infrastructure. But it’s the first time it’ll be used to capture satellites to save a buck.

In this economy, that’s a big deal.

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