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Rocket Lab launches smallsats, catches but drops booster

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab declared success in its effort to capture an Electron booster mid-air after launch on May 2, even though the helicopter had to release the booster moments later.

The Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 6:49 p.m. ET after a brief pause in the countdown. The rocket’s ascent went as planned, with the initial stage, carrying a payload of 34 small satellites, reaching orbit about 10 minutes later.

In this mission, dubbed “There and Back” by Rocket Lab, the focus was on the rocket’s first stage. After three previous releases in which the stage descended under a parachute to fall into the ocean and be retrieved by a ship, the company planned to capture the stage in the air using a helicopter. A hook descending from the helicopter would grab the parachute, which would then return the stage to land or deposit it on a ship without exposing it to salt water.

The company announced mid-air capture as the final step in its efforts to reuse the stage. A successful airborne recovery could allow the company to fly the stage again later this year, allowing it to increase its rate of flight without making more propellants.

About 15 minutes after launch, the descending thruster came into view of Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter. Video from the helicopter appeared to show the hook grabbing the parachute to applause from mission control. Moments later, however, there were groans and the internet feed cut off, suggesting that perhaps the helicopter missed the booster.

More than half an hour later, Rocket Lab confirmed that the helicopter had grabbed, but then released, the propeller. “After the capture, the helicopter pilot noted different payload characteristics than we have experienced in testing,” company spokeswoman Murielle Baker said in the webcast. “At his discretion, the pilot unloaded the stage for a successful splashdown” for recovery by a boat, as in the previous three recovery attempts.

Despite the launch, he called the capture “a monumental step in our program to make Electron a reusable launch vehicle.” It was unclear when Rocket Lab would next attempt an airborne booster recovery.

While the booster capture attempt garnered attention for the launch, the primary goal of the mission was to place 34 small satellites into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 520 kilometers, which the launch stage completed an hour after liftoff. In this dedicated rideshare mission, 24 of the satellites were Spacebee satellites from Swarm Technologies, the SpaceX-owned company that operates a constellation of Internet of Things services, in a launch organized by Spaceflight.

Also at the launch were three prototype satellites built by E-Space, a startup established by OneWeb founder Greg Wyler that will test technologies for a future broadband constellation. Alba Orbital flew four small satellites for itself and various clients.

Unseenlabs had its BRO-6 satellite for locating radiofrequency signals. Aurora Propulsion Technologies launched its AuroraSat-1 spacecraft to test debris removal technologies. A New Zealand startup, Astrix Astronautics, included a technology demo payload called Copia that will remain attached to the launch scenario.