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How to use a helicopter to catch a rocket4 min read

February 9, 2021 3 min read


How to use a helicopter to catch a rocket4 min read

Reading Time: 3 minutes

All Things Science

Rishi Jain

With SpaceX starting to recover its rocket boosters with remarkable consistency, another company has caught on to the idea. Rocket Lab, a New Zealand based American aerospace company, had some wild success with its main rocket, the Electron rocket.

Let’s delve into how Rocket Lab’s CEO, Peter Beck, plans to recover a rocket booster, an idea that looks like it is straight out of a science fiction novel. Recovering the rocket will help by bringing the cost down for launch because it can be reused and not made from scratch again.

Owliver’s Obscure Observation: Rocket boosters are the first stage of a rocket and will the be first to disengage after lift off. Recovering the first stage is an idea that has created a lot of interest in SpaceX and Rocket Lab.

Let’s go back. What does Rocket Lab do?

Peter Beck founded Rocket Lab in 2006, but their first orbital launch, which got them into outer space, only occurred three years ago in 2018. The launches prior to this were suborbital, which means they did not completely reach outer space, though they did reach a pretty high altitude. 

With success of it’s orbital launches, Rocket Lab was able to achieve low-earth orbit and deploy a few satellites . The Electron’s popularity has only risen since then. Even though the Electron has a limited capacity, Rocket Lab is very confident in the Electron. It has flown 18 times, with only two resulting in failures.

Can Rocket Lab catch a rocket with a helicopter?

Don’t drop that jaw yet! Even though it sounds new, this has been done before. The US military employed this system to catch camera film from satellites in the 1960s when there were no digital cameras. Since the Electron is 12.5 thousand kgs, this mission is on a completely different level. Lockheed Martin, a major investor in space endeavours already displayed this tech in 2017.

So how do they actually do it?

After the first stage and second stage of the rocket separate, the Electron’s first stage heads back to Earth. As the rocket descends, it heats up to half the temperature of the sun. Before it enters Earth’s atmosphere, it deploys a supersonic parachute to help slow it down. Once it enters Earth’s atmosphere, it opens a large parafoil to help it steer. The parafoil is for steering, but the parachute is mainly to slow it down before reentry.

A parafoil helping the rocket slow down on entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Photo: NASA

Meanwhile, a helicopter comes off the pad on a ship nearby, and as it approaches the heavy Electron rocket, it lets down a hook to catch the string connecting to the parachute. The helicopter will then lay the rocket down on the ship and land on the pad once again. Once the ship returns to shore, Rocket Lab will inspect it. They will check the health of the rocket and whether it is still in good condition for refuelling and the next launch.

Is this what SpaceX does?

In the end, it seems as if SpaceX’s idea to land on drone ships might be more effective in landing rockets. First of all, SpaceX has precisely programmed the drone ship to be right at the coordinates where the rocket will land. Rocket Lab has to figure out how to catch the rocket while it is falling, which is a lot harder to anticipate. Secondly, the drone ship will be a lot more reliable, since it is not flying like the helicopter. But, the Electron is a lot smaller than the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s main rocket, which makes the possibility of an air recovery a lot higher and easier.

As you can see, this rocket endeavour is possible. But for Rocket Lab to pull it off, it’s going to take a lot of work. We’re thrilled with this idea and are hyped to see it employed in future launches!

Check out this cool animation on Rocket Lab’s plans:

Sources: DOGO News

Guest Author: Rishi is a 7th grader and basketball fan. He has a sports YouTube channel with 50 subscribers and aspires to make it 1M someday. He likes watching space launches and reading about building rockets.

(All Things Science is weekly column about science, space and other things around it.)

Here’s a puzzle to cap it off: