Rocket Lab will try to make history today with their attempt to catch a spent booster mid-air with a helicopter. This (mostly) unprecedented technique is apparently the safest and most efficient the company has to offer, and it will be the first large-scale operation, aimed at catching the first leg of the “There and Back” mission before that it does not collapse. You can watch it live below this afternoon.
Don’t worry, this isn’t just a helicopter-mounted catcher’s glove for the first stage to crash at terminal velocity; they make a little more sense than that.
The booster will do its job extracting the upper stage and payload from the lower atmosphere, then detach and fall along a generally predictable trajectory, and at some point deploy a parachute – not too high or it might drift too far. Once its location and speed are confirmed, a nearby specialist helicopter will take off to its location.
Once he has the floating thruster in sight, he’ll move to hook it up by grabbing some kind of handle that should be floating a bit above the thing itself. We don’t know exactly what the current mechanism is, as this is the first time the full configuration will be deployed publicly.
The company has already proven it works with a test article and a different helicopter in 2020, but they’ve never captured an actual freshly launched first stage – no doubt the logistics are slightly more complicated, although in the end account the skyhook or whatever they call it may not have changed much. “Several critical steps must line up perfectly to ensure a successful capture,” reads the mission description, so don’t be surprised if there’s a last-minute cancellation.
The heavy Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will need just under a thousand kilograms of spare lift, which actually seems pretty light all things considered. It speaks to the emphasis on weight and efficiency of the Electron launcher that the bird could probably snatch a few before it was too heavy to fly.
The mission itself, named (as you no doubt know) after the original title of Bilbo Baggins’ travelogue in The Hobbit, will put 34 satellites into orbit for a variety of clients: Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, and Unseenlabs.
The launch window opens around 10:35 a.m. local New Zealand time (that’s tomorrow for them), or 3:25 p.m. (today) PT. The stream below will start about 20 minutes before that.
Rocket Lab notes that “We will attempt to show live footage of the helicopter capture during this mission, but expect video loss due to the remote location of the helicopter during the attempt. capture.” While that’s true, it’s also handy (as SpaceX has often demonstrated) if things don’t quite go to plan. But hoping that the flight and the capture go well.