Rocket Lab catches an Electron stage in mid-air, demonstrating a key part of its rocket recovery plan

Rocket Lab is in the process of developing a way to recover the rockets it launches, despite their originally being designed as fully expendable launch vehicles. The company had a surprise announcement on Wednesday: It has already managed to successfully catch an Electron in mid-air, during a test meant to prove out the feasibility of that part of the operation.

The whole process involves Rocket Lab employing an onboard guidance system to orient an Electron first-stage to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere after it has deployed its kick-stage and payload, at such an angle that it won’t burn up. After that, the spent stage will deploy a parachute and float back toward Earth, where this mid-air recovery maneuver will come into play, with a helicopter snagging the gently falling rocket component out of the sky and flying it back to Rocket Lab suspended underneath the aircraft.

During this test, which took place earlier in March before the current guidelines around practicing social isolation were in place, Rocket Lab simulated the actual launch component, instead taking an Electron test article that resembles the first-stage in size, design and weight, and then dropping that from a helicopter over the ocean off the coast of New Zealand. A second helicopter then swooped in to capture the test article, after it had deployed its own parachute, when it reached an altitude of around 5,000 feet.

Rocket Lab has been testing the re-entry portion of its recovery system, first with a launch last December, and then again this January. In both missions, the Electron used during the launch was equipped with guidance and navigation systems for data collection, and in the later mission, the rocket also had a system for reorienting itself to hit the atmosphere at the proper angle to slow its rate of descent.

Those tests proved that part of the process should work as intended, and the next step now that this part has been validated is to attempt to actually recover a first-stage, which Rocket Lab intends to do sometime later this year. That will involve having the Electron first-stage on a forthcoming mission reorient itself to slow its descent, and actually deploy a parachute, but it won’t include the catch attempt. Instead, Rocket Lab will look to recover the booster from the ocean after it splashes down, and return it to its own facilities for refurbishment and potential re-use.