Rocket Lab successfully catches falling rocket with helicopter

Rocket Lab, the space company founded by Kiwi Peter Beck, has successfully carried out its audacious attempt to catch a falling rocket using a helicopter.

It's an important step in the company's plan to make its Electron rockets reusable, an achievement it says would increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites.

In the 'There And Back Again' mission the company launched an Electron rocket from its Launch Complex 1A on Mahia Peninsula and caught it with a customised Sikorsky S-92, a large twin engine helicopter typically used in offshore search and rescue operations.

Lift-off occurred at 10:49am NZT and the helicopter caught the rocket around 15 minutes later.

"Absolutely incredible stuff there, we have successfully caught that Electron booster underneath the parachute," said Rocket Lab Senior Communications Advisor Murielle Baker during the company's livestream.

Before the rocket was caught as it returned to Earth, it deployed 34 satellites for Rocket Lab customers, which the company called its "primary mission".

But it was the subsequent helicopter catch that was a historical achievement.

US company SpaceX has been developing reusable rockets with the 16-storey-tall Falcon 9, which uses engines to perform a flip manoeuvre and vertically land back on Earth

Rocket Lab's Electron is much smaller at 18m and the first-stage boosters cannot carry enough fuel to perform a Falcon 9 style landing, so the company has developed the helicopter catch instead.

"Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet," said CEO 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."

Tuesday's mission was delayed several times as Rocket Lab waited for ideal weather conditions.

The satellites deployed on the mission - Rocket Lab's 26th - were for Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight and Unseenlabs.