Practice makes perfect: Rocket Lab tries again to catch rocket booster with a helicopter

Rocket Lab is scheduled to launch the "Catch Me If You Can" mission at 1:15 p.m. EDT Friday (17:15 p.m. UTC). After delivering its payload to orbit the Electron rocket will come back to Earth at more than 5,100 mph before using parachutes to slow down enough for a helicopter to catch it.

Space company Rocket Lab is at it again this week with plans to catch another rocket booster falling from the sky using an elaborate helicopter and parachute system. 

While it sounds unbelievable, the U.S.-based company launching out of New Zealand achieved the first significant step toward launching and re-using its Electron rocket boosters in May when it did just that.

During that test, Rocket Lab successfully captured the Electron booster with a helicopter after launching 34 ride-sharing payloads into space. The initial plan was to carry the booster to a nearby ship, but the pilot decided to release the booster into the ocean for safety reasons. According to the company, the rocket was later picked up by boat and was in good condition.

On Friday, Rocket Lab will again attempt the complicated task of plucking a booster falling from the sky using a helicopter and carrying the booster to dry land, hoping to achieve bringing back a dry, toasty booster this time.

The company, led by CEO Peter Beck, is scheduled to launch the "Catch Me If You Can" mission at 1:15 p.m. EDT Friday (17:15 p.m. UTC). 


Electron is poised to launch from Rocket Lab's New Zealand launch site with the Mesospheric Airglow/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy (MATS) spacecraft, a science research satellite for the Swedish National Space Agency (SNSA). The payload was initially flying on a Russian rocket. Due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the payload is now flying with Rocket Lab. 

Rocket Lab will need the weather to cooperate for this next test to go well.

According to Rocket Lab, the launch team will be looking to avoid fog and low cloud cover to maximize visibility for the helicopter catch. 

Once the helicopter catches the booster, it will then offload it to the company's Auckland Production Complex. 

"Our first helicopter catch only a few months ago proved we can do what we set out to do with Electron, and we’re eager to get the helicopter back out there and advance our rocket reusability even further by bringing back a dry stage for the first time," Beck said in a statement.

How to catch a falling rocket

After launch and separation, the bottom half of the rocket returns to Earth, performing a series of complex maneuvers to allow it to survive the extreme heat as it re-enters Earth's atmosphere. The rocket will travel at almost 5,150 mph when it begins its descent back to Earth.

Next, a drogue parachute deploys from the booster about 7 minutes after liftoff, beginning to slow Electron down. Next, the main parachute deploys, slowing the booster down to about 22 mph, allowing Rocket Lab's Sikorsky helicopter to catch the parachute. 

Lastly, the helicopter will carry the booster back to land. 

A recovery ship will be stationed at sea as a backup in case the catch attempt is not successful. If that happens, the booster will be scooped up onto the boat and brought back to land by boat.

The company then plans to refurbish and re-fly the rocket saving millions on launch costs. 

Rocket Lab will live stream the launch and capture attempt.