Launch firm Rocket Lab USA Inc has captured a falling rocket stage out of the air with a helicopter before dropping it in the ocean, appearing to achieve a partially successful test of the company’s novel cost-savings approach.
The demonstration on Monday, involving parachutes and a long cable hanging from a helicopter, sought to check off a key milestone for the California-based company as it ventures to slash the cost of sending hardware into space, an industry trend pioneered by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
After lifting off to send 34 satellites towards orbit at 10:50am (22:50 GMT) in New Zealand, the company’s four-storey-tall Electron booster stage fell back through Earth’s atmosphere and deployed a series of parachutes to break its speed.
At high altitudes above the South Pacific, just off the New Zealand coast, a helicopter hanging a long, vertical cable from its underside was steered by two pilots over the booster, which had stretched to its side a capture line as it descended under a parachute at roughly 35km/h (22 mph).
The helicopter cable latched onto the booster’s capture line, as seen on the company’s live stream, prompting cheers and applause from Rocket Lab engineers in the company’s mission control centre in Long Beach.
But the cheers turned to groans as the helicopter pilots were forced to release the rocket from the cable and drop it into the Pacific Ocean after noticing “different load characteristics” than what had been experienced during previous capture tests, a Rocket Lab spokesperson later confirmed.
Amy Thomson, a Florida-based space and science journalist, said the achievement, though partial, is significant for the future.
“Although there was something not quite right with the connection and they had to drop the booster, it is still a significant milestone because this was achieved in their first attempt,” she told Al Jazeera.
A fully successful test would have involved carrying the rocket booster back to land or onto a barge without having it touch the ocean.
“No big deal,” Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck wrote on Twitter. “The rocket splashed down safely and the ship is loading it now.”
It was not immediately clear whether Rocket Lab planned to reuse the booster.