By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business
Rocket Lab this week made an ostentatious attempt to catch a rocket as it fell from space using a hook-and-loop helicopter that hooked the rocket in the air only for the pilots to intentionally jettison it a few moments later due to security concerns. The display is part of the company’s plan to eventually reuse its rocket boosters, saving time and money. But it may be months before the company makes another attempt.
Despite saying the solution needed to make the rocket capture work is “trivial”, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told reporters during a post-flight briefing that the company will have to return to the testing phase. The plan is to build a better replica of the rocket booster to use in simulations so helicopter pilots aren’t caught off guard by the physics involved in catching the real thing, like they were after the attempt Monday evening.
Beck also said the company is focusing on an upcoming mission to launch a tiny satellite to the moon. Only after this mission has been completed and additional tests performed will the company attempt the helicopter capture maneuver again.
Still, Beck said Rocket Lab gathered a lot of valuable information about Monday’s attempt, saying an “important step” had been taken in the company’s journey to make its $7.5 million rocket reusable. .
The capture was largely trouble-free, at least initially. After the first-stage rocket booster – the large lower part of the rocket that provides initial liftoff thrust – put a group of satellites into space, it made a controlled dive to the ground using a set of small thrusters to keep it oriented as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
“It’s really important because if you don’t have the stage perfectly oriented with the heat shield down, then basically when the re-entry process starts it’s like a big ball of plasma [and] it’s going to basically shred the scene,” Beck said, noting that before re-entry, the rocket is traveling at about seven times the speed of sound, or more than 5,300 miles per hour (8,600 kilometers per hour).
When the rocket arrived at a sufficiently low altitude, it slowed to just twice the speed of sound and deployed a small parachute, called a “drop drug”, to further slow his descent.
Meanwhile, the helicopter – a massive Sikorsky S-92 twin-engine helicopter of the type typically used for search and rescue missions – waited nearby, using computers to keep a close eye on the thruster’s whereabouts.
When a larger parachute deployed, Beck said the rocket slowed to just 22 miles per hour, or 10 meters per second, allowing the helicopter pilots to match its speed. Then the helicopter made its approach, using a 150-foot rope line from its belly with a hook at the bottom to intercept the rocket. On Monday it worked almost perfectly.
The only problem was that, for the helicopter pilot, the capture created an uncomfortable “load” on the helicopter beyond what it had experienced in testing. So they jettisoned the rocket into the ocean, which the company hoped to avoid because seawater is corrosive and damages electronic components.
“We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew,” Beck told reporters after the flight. “The pilots were well informed: if something was different from the simulation that they thought they weren’t happy with, then the most important thing is everyone’s safety. …and that’s exactly what they executed. So they made a good catch. And they just didn’t like the way the load felt.
During the post-flight briefing, Beck pointed out the difficulty of executing the maneuver.
“It’s kind of a three-dimensional problem, if you will,” he said. “There are so many things that need to go perfectly, and it’s really an incredible ballet of logistics and moving parts.”
The company expected near-perfect weather and visibility for Monday’s attempt, and Beck said it currently has no plans to attempt such a nighttime capture. So even when and if Rocket Lab masters this rocket recovery technique, the company may not be able to use it on every mission.
Either way, Beck said it’s still worth the time and money to figure it out.
He noted that the first-stage rocket booster accounts for about 80% of the cost of an all-new rocket, so figuring out how to capture them and reuse them safely after launch will save the company a lot of money. . And compared to the millions of dollars needed to make a new rocket, renting the helicopter to try to recover only costs about $4,000 or $5,000 an hour, Beck noted.
Beck said he wouldn’t rule out trying to reuse the rocket booster from Monday’s mission. It only took a brief dip in the ocean before it was picked up by a ship, and it made a soft landing.
Much remains unclear about how Rocket Lab will ultimately reuse its rockets. It took SpaceX, for example, several years to figure out how to safely and efficiently recover, refurbish, and re-fly its first-stage boosters. And Beck cited the company as a model for how Rocket Lab will proceed.
“It’s an iterative process,” he said, sounding cautiously optimistic before pivoting, almost immediately, to signal that he thinks Rocket Lab can quite easily fix what went wrong on Monday.
“Now that we have the data,” he said, “we can go back and rebuild it and, like I said, it will be fixed very quickly.”
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