Watch Rocket Lab try to catch a falling booster with a helicopter today.

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Update: The launch has been moved from the end of last week to today. Tune in below!

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Today, Rocket Lab will make an attempt to make history by trying to catch a spent booster in the air using a helicopter. This (mostly) unprecedented method appears to be the safest and most efficient the company could come up with, and it will be the first full-scale operation that aims to make it to the first leg of the Round trip mission before it splashes down. . . You can watch it live this afternoon.

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Don’t worry, it’s not just a catcher’s glove mounted on a helicopter to make the first stage crash at top speed; they have a little more meaning than that.

The booster will do its job of extracting the upper stage and payload from the lower atmosphere, then separate and fall along a generally predictable trajectory, and at some point open the parachute – not too high, otherwise it could be carried too far. As soon as his location and speed are confirmed, a special helicopter will fly out next to him.

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As soon as he sees a floating accelerator in sight, he will move to catch it, grabbing a sort of handle that should float above the thing itself. We don’t know exactly what the current mechanism is, as this is the first time a full install will be publicly deployed.

Company already proved it works with a test item and another helicopter back in 2020, but they never filmed the actual first stage immediately after launch – no doubt the logistics are a bit more complicated, though ultimately the skyhook, or whatever they call it, may not have changed much. “Several critical milestones must match up perfectly to ensure a successful capture,” the mission description says, so don’t be surprised if there’s a last-minute cancellation.

Sikorsky helicopter ready for takeoff, employees of the rocket laboratory nearby.

Image credits: Rocket Lab

A heavy Sikorsky S-92 helicopter would need just under a thousand kilograms of reserve lift, which actually seems pretty light all things considered. This is evidence that the Electron booster is focused on weight and efficiency, and the bird will likely be able to grab a few of them before it becomes too heavy to fly.

The mission itself, named (as you no doubt know) after the original title of Bilbo Baggins’ story about his journey in The Hobbit, will put 34 satellites into orbit for various customers: Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion TechnologiesE-Space and Unseenlabs.

The launch window opens at approximately 10:35 AM local New Zealand time (i.e. tomorrow for them) or 3:35 PM (today) PT. The stream below will start approximately 20 minutes before.

Rocket Lab notes that “we will attempt to show live footage of the helicopter capture during this mission, but we expect some video loss due to the helicopter’s remote location during the capture attempt.” While this is true, it’s also handy (as SpaceX has often demonstrated) if things don’t quite go according to plan. But we hope the flight and capture goes well.

Credit: /

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