Rocket Lab catches booster stage with helicopter as it falls from space

Company used a helicopter to pluck a 11.9-metre booster stage from mid-air with ropes, parachutes and a heatshield

Small rocket builder Rocket Lab USA on Monday accomplished a mission that involved catching a falling four-storey-tall rocket booster with a helicopter.

The Long Beach, California company is trying to cut the cost of spaceflight by reusing its rockets, a trend pioneered by billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX.

But unlike SpaceX's reusable, two-stage rocket Falcon 9, which reignites its engines to return to Earth, Rocket Lab used a helicopter with two pilots to pluck a 11.9-metre booster stage from mid-air with ropes, parachutes and a heatshield.

Chief executive and chief engineer at SpaceX, Elon Musk, and his mother, former model Maye Musk, arrive for the 2022 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. AFP

"I'm pretty confident that if the helicopter pilots can see it, they'll catch it," Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck told Reuters before the launch.

"If we don't get it this time, we'll learn a bunch and we'll get it the next time, so I'm not super worried."

The company tweeted, "Helicopter catch." It also posted photos of the launch and catch.

Rocket Lab, which went public in 2021 through a blank-cheque merger led by Vector Capital, which valued it at $4.1 billion, has launched about two dozen missions to orbit for a mix of government and commercial customers, three of which ended in mission failures.

The growing field of small rocket companies also includes Astra Space and Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit.

Recovering rocket boosters using parachutes and helicopters, instead of using engines to land vertically, means the rocket does not need to save extra fuel for a "propulsive" landing, as with SpaceX's Falcon 9, Mr Beck said.

And landing rockets vertically is trickier for smaller, lighter rockets, engineers say.

"If we can use a rocket twice, then we've just doubled our production," Mr Beck said.

The company's Electron rocket also launched 34 small satellites in a mission Rocket Lab called: "There and Back Again."

Reuters contributed reporting

Updated: May 03, 2022, 4:06 AM