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Watch this helicopter catch a rocket booster as it plummets to Earth

Published May 4th, 2022 11:34AM EDT
falcon 9 spacex reusable rocket booster
Image: AP Photo/John Raoux

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SpaceX isn’t the only company looking into reusable rockets, though it was the first. One of the latest companies looking into it is Rocket Lab. The company recently used one of its Electron rocket boosters to deliver satellites into orbit.

After the launch, the booster dropped back down through the atmosphere, where a helicopter attempted to catch it.

Trying to catch reusable rockets with a helicopter

SpaceX was one of the first companies to push for reusable rockets. And it has set some great records for reusable spacecraft. For a time, the company even tried using two ships to help catch parts of its rocket boosters as they came back down to Earth. Musk has ultimately given up on catching the parts before they hit the water. However, another company is looking for other ways to catch rockets as they fall back to Earth.

Rocket Lab, a California-based company, regularly launches 18-meter (59-foot) rockets from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. Normally the company uses the rockets to deliver satellites into space. That’s all fine and good, and operations have been going smoothly. However, a recent attempt to collect a reusable rocket before it hit the saltwater below went awry.

The plan, as Peter Beck, the founder of Rocket Lab, tells it, was to catch the rocket booster using a line attached to a helicopter. The plan actually succeeded initially, as you can see in the video that we’ve linked above. However, things soon went differently than planned.

Unexpected load

“They got a great catch,” Beck explained in a conference call after the launch of the Electron rocket. “They just didn’t like the way the load was feeling.” (via NBC News)

According to Beck, the helicopter crew reported some unexpected load issues after catching the reusable rocket. Beck says that the mission was a success, overall, and that the load issue would be sorted out before the next launch.

Rocket Labs attempt to catch and reuse rockets is part of an ongoing effort by many to make space travel more affordable. SpaceX already reuses its Falcon 9 booster (pictured in the header image above), which has seen a number of launches and recoveries. One of the biggest hindrances for reusable rockets, though, is the saltwater they often land in. The oceans where rocket boosters are usually sent to land can corrode the metal that the boosters are made of.

This leads to having to replace things, or even completely remake parts of the boosters if it isn’t retrieved quickly. Even then, there’s no telling what the saltwater might corrode in the time that it’s there. SpaceX may have given up on catching its rockets, but it still reuses them. Time will only tell if Rocket Lab’s attempt to catch reusable rockets with helicopters is actually a viable option.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.