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Rocket Lab prepares for mid-air pickup of booster

Rocket Lab has confirmed it will attempt to catch a returning rocket booster mid-air with a helicopter during the company's next recovery mission.

This follows the successful demonstration of helicopter shadow operations during the company's 22nd rocket launch from Mahia, last week.

The company hopes to make Electron the world's first reusable, orbital-class commercial small rocket.

During the last launch Rocket Lab once again conducted a controlled splashdown and retrieval of first stage of its Electron launch vehicle from the ocean, after it returned from space under a parachute.

While stationed 200 nautical miles offshore, Rocket Lab's recovery helicopter successfully tracked the booster's return to Earth as it travelled at nearly 10,000kmh all while maintaining communications with Rocket Lab's Mission Control and recovery vessel stationed at sea.

Rocket Lab's recovery engineers successfully met the returned stage in the ocean within 80 minutes of lift-off, halving the time of previous recovery attempts to secure the stage and begin the journey back to Rocket Lab's production complex for analysis and inspection.

Electron's first stage has now been returned to Rocket Lab's production complex in Auckland, and is undergoing analysis and inspection to inform future recovery operations.

“With the success of this latest mission, Rocket Lab will now move to aerial capture attempts with a helicopter for future recovery missions in the first half of 2022,” a company statement said.

Improvements to the launch vehicle for this next recovery attempt, planned for early next year, will include a thermal protection system applied to the entire stage and its nine Rutherford engines to help it endure heat of up to 2400 degrees Celsius during re-entry, and modifications to the parachute system

“A reusable Electron means more rockets and launch opportunities for better access to space for satellite customers,” said Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck.