ORLANDO, Fla., May 2 (UPI) — Rocket Lab successfully launched and caught an Electron booster with a helicopter for the first time on Monday.
“Helicopter catch!” Rocket Lab tweeted following the successful mission, called “There and back again.”
Following the successful catch, the company also conducted its first booster offloading, with the aircraft dropping the rocket on to a waiting ship.
Monday’s liftoff was placed on hold about 12 minutes ahead of the scheduled launch but was completed at around 6:50 p.m. EDT from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.
Data collected from both the catching and then offloading the booster onto the recovery ship will be used to streamline the process going forward.
Rocket Lab said the Electron booster stage was in “great condition” after splashdown, adding the pilot noticed different load characteristics than in previous testing during the offloading.
The booster will be further assessed to determine whether it can be launched again.
Unfavorable conditions forced the company to delay the launch several days, originally pushing it to Friday, then postponing to Sunday before finally being able to launch Monday.
“We don’t usually give mother nature quite so much power over launch timing, but for our first helicopter catch attempt we want to line up the best possible conditions to give us the highest chance of a successful catch. In time, we’ll narrow those bounds,” the company said after first pushing the launch to Friday.
“After a busy week of capture testing, and while we wait for weather to improve, we’re taking an additional day for final helicopter and recovery system optimization ahead of our first mid-air capture attempt,” the company said Saturday on Twitter.
Rocket Lab used a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter to snag the booster as it fell from the sky.
“We’ve carried out successful helicopter flights with replica stages, as well as conducted extensive parachute tests. Now it’s time to put everything together,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told UPI last week.
Engineers have spent the past two years working to make the Electron booster reusable, and recently beefed up the rocket’s thermal protection system — as seen by a new red stripe on the rocket — which helped it hold up during re-entry and facilitate the catch.
Beck said the company not only beefed up the thermal protection system, but also installed parachutes on the rocket to help slow it down as it fell to Earth to help the helicopter grab the rocket.
“We’re excited about this new era of reusability,” Beck said.