A helicopter will try to catch a missile falling in the air today

Space startup Rocket Lab is poised to pull off its latest feat today: using a helicopter to catch a rocket booster in mid-air as it falls back to Earth.

The launch window for the Catch Me If You Can mission opens today, November 4, between 5:15-6:30 PM. UTC (1:15-2:30 PM EST). Best of all, the entire spectacle will be streamed live via Rocket Lab’s website.

Here’s how the mission will unfold: Rocket Lab will launch one of its 18-meter (59-foot) Electron rockets from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Shortly after launch, a personalized recovery helicopter will launch to the capture zone at sea, approximately 160 nautical miles off New Zealand’s Trunks Peninsula.

Once the Electron payload is in orbit, the rocket’s first stage will descend back to Earth over the sea, reaching speeds of up to 8,300 kilometers (5,150 miles) per hour and temperatures of up to 2,400 °C (4,352 °F).

It will release a parachute to slow down to just 36 kilometers (22 miles) per hour. The helicopter will match the missile’s speed and descend from above, attempting to latch on to the trailing parachute using a hook attacked by a long line.

Rocket Lab first tested this unique style of rocket reentry in May 2022 in a mission called “There And Back Again.” It was a success, but the mission intentionally crashed the rocket back into the sea. This latest mission will go further and fly the first stage back to Rocket Lab’s production complex in Auckland, where technicians will study it and see if it is suitable for reuse.

“Our first helicopter capture just a few months ago proved that we can do everything we wanted to do with the Electron, and we’re looking forward to getting the helicopter back out there and pushing our rocket reusability even further by bringing back a dry stage for the first time,” Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab, said in a statement.

The goal of this entire project is to find a safe and low-cost means of returning rockets to Earth for reuse, just like the reusable launch system program developed by SpaceX.

Disposable rockets are one of the main reasons space travel is so expensive. it’s basically like crashing a plane into the sea every time you fly somewhere on vacation. However, if you can reuse rocket stages, you can save a significant amount of money by making launches cheaper and more affordable.

That means various space startups are developing some interesting ways to both raise and lower them.

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