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Rocket Lab Successfully Deploys 34 Satellites and Catches Rocket Booster Returning from Space with Helicopter

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
May 2, 2022
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Electron launches on May 3, 2022. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

LONG BEACH, Calif., May 2, 2022 (Rocket Lab PR) — Rocket Lab (Nasdaq: RKLB) (“Rocket Lab” or “the Company”), a leading launch and space systems company, has successfully launched its 26th Electron mission, deploying 34 satellites to orbit. Rocket Lab has now deployed a total of 146 satellites to orbit with the Electron launch vehicle.

The “There And Back Again” mission also saw Rocket Lab complete a mid-air capture of the Electron booster with a helicopter for the first time. After launching to space, Electron’s first stage returned to Earth under a parachute. At 6,500 ft, Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter rendezvoused with the returning stage and used a hook on a long line to capture the parachute line. The mid-air capture is a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites. After the catch, the helicopter pilot detected different load characteristics than previously experienced in testing and offloaded the stage for a successful splashdown. The stage is being loaded onto Rocket Lab’s recovery vessel for transport back to the Company’s production complex for analysis and assessment for re-flight as planned.

The mid-air capture comes after successful recovery operations from Rocket Lab’s 16th, 20th, and 22nd missions, which saw Electron’s first stage execute a controlled ocean splashdown before being returned to Rocket Lab’s production complex. Like those missions, a reaction control system re-oriented the first stage to an ideal angle for re-entry during the “There And Back Again” mission, enabling the stage to survive the incredible heat and pressure during its descent back to Earth. A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometers of descent. “There And Back Again” is the first time a helicopter catch attempt was introduced to recovery operations and today’s mission will inform future helicopter captures.

“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly, so I am incredibly proud of the stellar efforts of our Recovery Team and all of our engineers who made this mission and our first catch a success. From here we’ll assess the stage and determine what changes we might want to make to the system and procedures for the next helicopter catch and eventual re-flight.”

The “There And Back Again” mission launched from Pad A at Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 10:49 am NZST, 3 May 2022, deploying satellites for Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight, and Unseenlabs. The mission brings the total number of satellites launched by Rocket Lab to 146. Among the payloads deployed were satellites designed to monitor light pollution, demonstrate space junk removal technologies, improve power restraints in small satellites, validate technology for sustainable satellite systems that can avoid collisions with untrackable space objects, enable internet from space, and build upon a maritime surveillance constellation.

Rocket Lab’s next mission is scheduled in May 2022 with more details to be released in the coming days.

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9 responses to “Rocket Lab Successfully Deploys 34 Satellites and Catches Rocket Booster Returning from Space with Helicopter”

  1. ThomasLMatula says:

    Congratulations on a successful flight and booster recovery!

  2. savuporo says:

    Great catch !

    They’ll nail it fully next time

  3. SLSFanboy says:

    “Helocapture” might become the standard second stage recovery method. Even snagging an engine return module for the SLS, without the tankage, is within the max load of the CH-53K.

    I would speculate that the wet workshop is by far the best possible design path to pursue due to being able to put second stage workshops in LEO and gradually raising them with solar-electric propulsion and also third stage workshops to the Moon where they can fill up with lunar water. The water can be brought up from the Moon using 20 to 23 times less energy than from Earth. These workshops can then be transited to GEO and partially emptied into the second stage workshops.

    This is the way to create shielded crew compartments for Space Stations, Lunar Cyclers, and Spaceships and fully reusing launch vehicle components.

  4. Steve Pemberton says:

    Interesting that the load handled differently in the actual return than in previous air drop tests. Wonder what caused the difference. Hopefully the booster is in good enough shape for them to make a determination. I suppose fuel would be the prime suspect, maybe more fuel was left over than expected, or maybe whatever leftover fuel it had was sloshing around differently than it did during tests, assuming they used fuel for the tests and not just ballast.

    Or maybe there is just so much dynamics with a lot of differences each time, and this particular load characteristic was simply not experienced during previous testing. They probably have pretty tight limits since they are still learning. Perhaps later when they have widened the margins a bit this particular load would have been within limits.

    • Robert G. Oler says:

      yeah well said. I will be curious as to what they find that was the difference. I am not a rotor guy but typically what those who are get upset with loads that start moving for some reason…

      and I think you nailed the primary variable would be fuel 🙂 they will make it work

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