Rocket Lab proves it can recover a rocket in mid-air

This is part of the company's plan to reuse its rockets.

Rocket Lab

Last year, Rocket Lab announced that it would attempt to reuse the first stage of its Electron rocket. The company’s goal is to catch the stage as it falls back towards the ocean by plucking it out of mid-air with a helicopter. While that’s ambitious, a video released today shows that Rocket Lab may not be too far off. The clip shows one helicopter dropping an Electron test stage and another hooking the stage’s parachute with a grappling hook and towing it back to land.

Rocket Lab pulled off this stunt in early March. One helicopter dropped the Electron test stage over open ocean in New Zealand. A second helicopter caught it, on the first attempt, at around 5,000 feet.

Next, Rocket Lab will attempt to recover a full Electron first stage following a launch. It won’t pull that from the air but will retrieve the rocket stage after it lands in the ocean. A parachute will help slow its descent, and like previous versions, it will include instrumentation to “inform future recovery efforts.” That mission is planned for late 2020.

Of course, catching a rocket stage after an actual launch is a lot different than catching one that’s dropped neatly by a helicopter. But the feat is a key milestone, as Rocket Lab’s plans to reuse the rockets depend on this recovery method. If it’s successful, Rocket Lab will be able to lower costs, and in theory, that may lead to more launches.