Startup Hopes to Catch Rockets with a Helicopter

Rocket Lab says reusing its rockets will help it launch small satellites more frequently.

The process of traveling to space is riddled with complicated and expensive engineering challenges, but efforts to make it more economical have thus far emphasized using rockets over and over again.

For most of the spaceflight era, the expensive rockets used to propel men and equipment into orbit were discarded to plummet back to Earth.

SpaceX famously pioneered the process of reusing them by redeploying its boosters to gently guide the first stage of its launch vehicle back to a platform on Earth.

This week, a startup that launches small satellites into space introduced an alternative method for capturing and reusing rockets: basically, the company wants to snag them with a helicopter.

The idea may sound like something out of an action movie, but Rocket Lab said it’s more feasible that a SpaceX-type system for its smaller rockets.

A video simulation released by the company shows a booster from its Electron rocket re-entering the atmosphere, then deploying a parachute — slowing it down enough so that a nearby helicopter can grab the parachute line with what looks a bit like a giant, crude fish hook. The helicopter would then bring the booster back to a ship for transport back to Rocket Lab.

Before that happens, however, Rocket Lab wants to take a bit more conventional approach: later this year, the company hopes to recover its used rockets from the ocean, ship them back to its factory, and see if it can get them running again.

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