Rocket Lab set to become second private company to return orbital-class rocket booster to land

Rocket Lab is set to become the second private company to return an orbital-class rocket booster to land through the launch of a hugely ambitious project.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab's CEO and founder, hopes to one-up Elon Musk by catching the booster before it hits the ground. 

It almost resembles fishing, with its long line and giant hook dangling above the ocean - but this is no small fry catch. It's the $9 million, 12,500-kilogram electron rocket.

SpaceX made history less than four years ago, landing three boosters at Cape Canaveral and on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Now, it's Rocket Lab's turn.

"If we can capture the vehicle in wonderful condition, in theory, we can put it back on the pad, charge the batteries up and go again," Invercargill-born Beck told Newshub.

The first phase of the programme will see the rockets recovered from the ocean near the East Coast's Mahia Peninsula.

The second stage aims to pluck the rocket from mid-air. Catching the rocket is the easy part - slowing the rocket down is where the challenge lies.

"We have to start off at 8.5-times the speed of sound and we have to get down to 0.01-times the speed of sound in about 70 seconds," says Beck.

That means getting rid of approximately 3.5 gigajoules of energy, enough to power 57,000 homes.

The booster re-entering the atmosphere generates a shockwave approximately equal to half the temperature of the sun.

Beck is remaining coy on just how Rocket Lab plans to tackle these issues but is confident it's not a step too far.

"We've developed quite a lot of new technologies and new techniques to manage this, so we think we've got a really good shot at making this happen," he says.

When it does happen, more launches, more innovation and a cheaper price tag should hopefully follow.

"Even if I can get the stage back once, I've effectively doubled my production ratio," says Beck.

Rocket Lab has a massive task ahead, to reshape space travel.