This evening, Rocket Lab will launch 34 satellites into Earth’s orbit. Shortly after its payload deploys, and if all goes according to plan, Rocket Lab will attempt to demonstrate a brand-new way to capture rocket stages for reuse.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket both barrel back toward the ground using retrorockets, or engines that help the rocket decelerate safely and quickly. Rocket Lab’s 59-foot-long Electron rocket is too small to carry enough fuel for a smooth ride back to Earth on a retrorocket, though. (The company’s larger Neutron rocket, scheduled to debut in 2024, was designed to be reusable from the jump and will use retrorockets.) This meant Rocket Lab had to get creative.
Enter the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter. Rocket Lab commissioned the American-made twin-engine helicopter (the president’s chopper, Marine One, is also a Sikorsky S-92) to capture Electron rocket stages as they float back to Earth’s surface via two drogue parachutes. A grappling hook attached to the helicopter will snag one of the chute’s strings and safely ferry the booster back home.
In order for this to work, Rocket Lab had to ensure that the stages could handle re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. They redesigned the boosters and added a robust heat shield that protects them from the blistering temperatures.