Rocket Lab says helicopter tracking mission – a precursor to a future mid-catch – a success

Can a helicopter catch a rocket booster as it falls back to Earth under parachute – or at least complete a tracking exercise that brings it a step closer to reality?

One of those questions was answered this afternoon when Rocket Lab’s “Love at First Insight” rocket launched into space and deployed its payload successfully, following two delays over the past week for bad weather.

On board a helicopter, an excited Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck proudly tweeted: “Splash down of the stage confirmed. Helicopter has eyes on it.”

His company added in a statement soon after: “Rocket Lab successfully introduced helicopter operations to a recovery mission for the first time, using a helicopter to observe and track the Electron rocket’s first stage as it descended to Earth under parachute as part of the company’s programme to make Electron the world’s first reusable, orbital-class commercial small rocket.”

This was the first time a helicopter had tracked and observed Electron’s descent. The shadowing exercise is in preparation for future missions which aim to use helicopters to intercept and capture returning rocket boosters mid-air as they return to Earth under parachute.

A Rocket Lab drill in April last year saw a helicopter successfully capture a mock Electron first-stage as it fell. The Kiwi-American company has yet to set a date for testing the real thing.

Today’s launch used a new parachute system designed for a slower descent. That will make the eventual bid at a mid-air helicopter retrieval easier.

And a mid-air retrieval will minimise wear-and-tear, maximising the chances that an Electron first-stage will be launched again and Rocket Lab join SpaceX as one of only two space transportation companies with a reusable rocket.

“Love at First Insight” carried two satellites into low Earth orbit for BlackSky – the first of a series of five missions for the NYSE-listed surveillance company.

The launch came a few days after Rocket Lab reported another big financial loss amid the pandemic, but also a pipeline of forward contracts that has swelled to US$237 million.
The company’s share price last traded on the Nasdaq at US$16.50, valuing the company just shy of $7 billion.

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Each launch has more frisson now that Rocket Lab is listed on the Nasdaq.

The stock has climbed 63 per cent since its August listing.

Despite pandemic disruption pushing Rocket Lab to a wider loss this year, investors have cheered developments including a fatter pipeline of contracts, an expansion of space systems manufacturing capacity, its US$45m acquisition of Colorado mission simulation and guidance system maker Advanced Solutions, and Rocket Lab securing US$24.35 million ($34m) in US military funding towards development of its much larger Neutron rocket.

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