Rocket Lab to try and catch returning Electron rocket with helicopter off coast of New Zealand

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket taking off
The 'threading the needle' manoeuvre has been planned for some time. Photo credit: Getty Images

Rocket Lab, the space company founded by New Zealander Peter Beck, says it will attempt to catch its launch rocket with a helicopter later this month off the coast of Aotearoa.

The company has been planning the manoeuvre for a while, with a previous launch in November serving as a test of process.

During that commercial mission, the company's recovery helicopter tracked the return of the vehicle as it fell back to Earth at around 8300 km/h.

The next mission, entitled 'There and Back Again', is the company's 26th launch using the Electron rocket.

It's scheduled to take off from the Māhia Peninsula within a 14-day launch window scheduled to start on April 19, launching 34 new payloads into orbit.

Rocket Lab will be attempting the catch with a customised Sikorsky S-92, a large twin engine helicopter typically used in offshore search and rescue operations, it said.

"We're excited to enter this next phase of the Electron recovery program," Beck said.

"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 said catching a rocket as it fell was no easy feat.

"We're absolutely threading the needle here, but pushing the limits with such complex operations is in our DNA.

"We expect to learn a tremendous amount from the mission as we work toward the ultimate goal of making Electron the first reusable orbital small sat launcher and providing our customers with even more launch availability."

The three successful ocean recovery missions had helped the company make design modifications to the Electron rocket, allowing it to better withstand re-entry and to develop the procedures necessary for helicopter capture, the company said.

During the operation several critical milestones must be hit to ensure a successful catch.

An hour before launch the Sikorsky helicopter will head to the capture zone, approximately 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.