Space startup Rocket Lab is about to spark a new debate among space launch fans about which is cooler: landing a rocket on an autonomous drone in the middle of the ocean, or hanging one in the sky with a helicopter.
The New Zealand and US-based company plans to attempt to retrieve one of its Electron rocket boosters using a helicopter to wrap up its next mission.
“Trying to catch a rocket as it’s falling back to Earth is no small feat, we’re absolutely threading the needle here,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.
Rocket Lab hasusing a helicopter, but has yet to catch a real electron as it falls back to Earth after another journey through space.
The attempt will take place during the next “Go and Return” mission, which is to deliver 34 small commercial satellites into orbit from April 19.
A Sikorsky S-92, which is a twin-engine helicopter often used for offshore drilling or search and rescue operations, will be on standby at a capture area off the coast of Rocket’s New Zealand launch facility Lab.
Less than three minutes after the Electron rocket launches, its second stage will separate and continue to propel the payload into orbit while the first-stage booster begins to descend back to Earth at high speed. Two parachutes will be deployed in succession as the rocket approaches the surface. This process will dramatically slow the booster from speeds exceeding 5,000 miles per hour (8,000 kilometers per hour) to just 22.3 miles (36 kilometers) per hour.
Once the scene reaches the capture area, the helicopter will attempt to hook the parachute line with a hook. If all goes as planned, the Sikorsky will then bring the day’s catch ashore for inspection.
Ultimately, engineers can tell you that SpaceX’s practice of autonomously landing a rocket returning from orbit smoothly onto a moving target at sea is the most impressive feat, but there’s something something to say about the drama of a human pilot diving to hook a rocket that opened a track to Earth seconds earlier.
This debate can remain in abeyance for the time being. In the meantime, the attempt is certainly worth the detour. Rocket Lab will be streaming the whole thing live, and we’ll be sure to embed the stream here, and on CNET Highlights on YouTube when it’s available.