Using a helicopter to pick up a falling missile is such a complex task that Peter Beck likened it to a “hypersonic ballet”.
Rocket Lab, the company Beck founded, partially accomplished that feat Tuesday as it pushes to make its small electronic rockets reusable. But after briefly catching the spent missile, the helicopter crew was forced to let it go again for safety reasons, and plunged into the Pacific Ocean where it was collected by a waiting boat.
The California-based company regularly launches 18-meter (59-foot) rockets from New Zealand’s remote Mahia peninsula to deliver satellites into space.
On Tuesday, the Electron rocket launched in the morning and sent 34 satellites into orbit before the main booster section began to fall to Earth. Its descent was slowed to about 10 meters (33 ft) per second by a parachute.
That’s when the helicopter crew got into action, dangling in a long line with a hook under the helicopter to block the crane’s canopy lines. The crew picked up the missile but the payload on the helicopter exceeded standards from tests and simulations, so they abandoned it again.
The vortex of emotion was recorded in the live broadcast of the event, with people at the control center cheering and applauding when the missile was captured, only to let out a collective gasp and sigh about 20 seconds later.
However, Beck praised the mission as a success, saying that nearly everything went as planned and that the unexpected loading issue was a small detail that would soon be fixed, “nothing in the scheme of things.”
“They had a great catch. They didn’t like the feeling of being pregnant,” Beck said of the helicopter crew on a post-launch conference call.
He said a detailed analysis should reveal the reasons for the discrepancy in the payload characteristics. He said he still hoped the company could salvage some or all of the spent missile, despite being submerged in the salt water they hoped to avoid.
Rocket Lab has called their latest assignment “There And Back Again” – a reference to the movie “The Hobbit” trilogy that was filmed in New Zealand.
The company described the brief mid-air takeover at 1,980 meters (6,500 feet) by a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter as a milestone. It says making its missiles reusable will enable the company to increase the number of launches it makes and reduce costs.
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX designed the first reusable orbital rocketFalcon 9.
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