Rocket Lab has revealed that the company has completed its first mid-air recovery test. The success of the test is a significant step towards Rocket Lab’s goal of recovering and reusing Electron boosters.
Although the announcement of the mid-air recovery test was made on April 8, Rocket Lab officials revealed that it had been completed “weeks” early. The test utilized an “Electron test stage” that was dropped from a helicopter. Seconds after the stage was dropped, a single parachute was deployed slowing its descent. A second helicopter was then used to snag the stage in mid-air at an altitude of around 1,500 meters and carry it away.
The mid-air recovery test was the latest in a series of milestones Rocket Lab is completing on the company’s road to reusability. In December 2019 and January 2020, Rocket Lab successfully completed guided reentries of Electron first stage boosters.
Unlike the propulsive reentry of a SpaceX Falcon 9, the Rocket Lab Electron will rely on atmospheric forces to slow the booster down enough to make a recovery possible. During the two reentry tests, Rocket Lab was able to reduce the speed of the booster from 7,000 kph to 900 kph while maintaining the correct angle of attack.
According to an April 8 Rocket Lab press release, the next phase of testing will be an attempt to recover a full Electron first stage following a launch from the company’s Mahia facility. The test will not include a mid-air helicopter capture attempt. Instead, the stage will be equipped with a parachute to slow its descent for a soft ocean landing. It will then be scooped up by a recovery ship. This mission is currently scheduled for late 2020.