Rocket Lab catches dummy booster with a helicopter in dramatic new video

Rocket Lab will try to pluck a falling rocket booster out of the sky with a helicopter for the first time ever this week, and a new video shows how it's all supposed to go down.

The California-based company released a short video on Monday (April 25) showing a successful recent helicopter catch of a dummy rocket. As the booster stand-in glides toward Earth, the chopper sidles up nearby and snags its parachute cord with a hook.

"While we await ideal weather conditions for #ThereAndBackAgain, the recovery team has been conducting capture tests using a stage 1 mass simulator. Our pilots make this look easy!" Rocket Lab representatives said Monday via Twitter (opens in new tab), where they posted the 103-second video.

Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photos)

This screenshot from a Rocket Lab video shows the company catching a dummy booster using a helicopter during a recent test.

This screenshot from a Rocket Lab video shows the company catching a dummy booster using a helicopter during a recent test.  (Image credit: Rocket Lab via Twitter)

"There And Back Again" is the name of Rocket Lab's next mission, which is scheduled to launch no earlier than 5:30 p.m. EDT (2130 GMT) on Thursday (April 28) from the company's New Zealand launch site. The planned liftoff of the company's two-stage Electron rocket has been pushed back several times due to unfavorable weather, as the tweet mentions.

The mission's chief objective is to loft 34 satellites for a variety of customers. But most space fans will be focused on the secondary aim — the successful snag of the Electron's returning first stage shortly after liftoff, which is part of Rocket Lab's effort to make the first stage of the 59-foot-tall (18 meters) Electron reusable.

It will be a big moment for the company; Rocket Lab has successfully guided returning Electron boosters back to Earth for soft ocean splashdowns on several previous flights but has never tried to catch one before. (Rocket Lab has conducted a number of helicopter snags with dummy boosters, and they've shown us videos of these catches before.)

Rocket Lab landed on the helicopter strategy because of Electron's size: The booster is too small to have enough fuel left over after launch to perform powered landings like the first stages of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets do, company representatives have said. 

Rocket Lab does plan to make vertical, powered booster landings eventually, however. The company is developing a larger rocket called Neutron, which is expected to fly for the first time in 2024. Neutron will be big enough to make propulsive touchdowns, and the rocket is designed to be reusable from the start.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).  

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com (opens in new tab) and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.