Rocket Lab set to attempt falling rocket capture on Saturday morning, NZ time

Rocket Lab will attempt to catch a rocket
"If we don't get it this time, we'll learn a bunch and we'll get it the next time." Photo credit: Supplied / Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab, the space company founded by New Zealander Peter Beck, is set to audaciously attempt to catch a falling rocket via helicopter on Saturday, NZ time.

The 'There And Back Again' mission will see the company's Electron rocket deploy 34 satellites into orbit, but it's the recovery of the booster that's of more interest this time around.

That will occur off the Māhia Peninsula tomorrow, weather permitting, with a launch window opening at 10.35am.

"We've already kind of cemented our place in history by successfully reentering and recovering an orbital class booster," Beck told RNZ.

"There's only SpaceX and us that have done that. The helicopter capture is obviously the next element of it, but it's an important part of the evolution of the vehicle."

Beck told Reuters he was "pretty confident" the helicopter pilots would catch the booster if they were able to see it, but wasn't overly concerned.

"If we don't get it this time, we'll learn a bunch and we'll get it the next time, so I'm not super worried."

The various stages of capture have been tested previously, but never all at the same time.

"We've conducted many successful helicopter captures with replica stages, carried out extensive parachute tests, and successfully recovered Electron's first stage from the ocean during our 16th, 20th, and 22nd missions.

"Now it's time to put it all together for the first time and pluck Electron from the skies."

Beck described the attempt as "threading the needle", with the Sikorsky S-92 recovery helicopter needing to track the booster as it falls back to earth at 8300 km/h.

The chopper, better known for its usage in the oil industry, has a 950km range and a top speed of 306 km/h.

An hour before launch it will head to the capture zone, around 150 nautical miles off New Zealand's coast.

After two minutes and 30 seconds of flight, Electron's first stage separates and begins its descent back to Earth, with temperatures reaching up to 2400C.

"After deploying a drogue parachute at 13km altitude, the main parachute will be extracted at around 6km altitude to dramatically slow the stage to 10 metres per second, or 36km/h," the company said.

"As the stage enters the capture zone, Rocket Lab's helicopter will attempt to rendezvous with the returning stage and capture the parachute line via a hook."

The Electron rocket will then be transferred back to land where it will be examined and its suitability for use again will be evaluated.

If the manoeuvre is successful, it means the company will be able to significantly increase its number of launches.

"If we can use a rocket twice, then we've just doubled our production," Beck said.