Rocket Lab will move a step closer to mid-air helicopter snatch with this afternoon’s launch

UPDATE: Love at First Insight launched and deployed its payload successfully. At 3.24pm, CEO Peter Beck posted, “Splash down of the stage confirmed. Helicopter has eyes on it.”

Can a helicopter catch a rocket booster as it falls back to Earth under parachute – or at least complete a tracking exercise that brings it a step closer to reality?

We should find out shortly.

Rocket Lab’s “Love at First Insight” launch is set for 2.38pm today, following two delays over the past week for bad weather.

A livestream will start above around 15 minutes before the launch, which comes just days after Rocket Lab reporting another big loss amid the pandemic, but also a pipeline of forward contracts that has swelled to US$237 millon.

All going well, tonight will be the third time an Electron booster-stage has splashed down in the ocean.

For the first time, a helicopter will track and observe Electron’s descent. The shadowing exercise is in preparation for future missions which aim to use helicopters to intercept and capture returning rocket boosters mid-air as they return to Earth under parachute.

A spokeswoman said Rocket Lab would attempt to include live video of the helicopter tracking as part of its livestream, but that a communications dropout was possible.

A Rocket Lab drill in April last year saw a helicopter successfully capture a mock Electron first-stage as it fell. The Kiwi-American company has yet to set a date for testing the real thing.

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Today’s launch will use a new parachute system designed for a slower descent. That will make the eventual bid at a mid-air helicopter retrieval easier.

And a mid-air retrieval will minimise wear-and-tear, maximising the chances that an Electron first-stage will be launched again and Rocket Lab join SpaceX as one of only two space transportation companies with a reusable rocket.

“Love at First Insight” will carry two satellites into low Earth orbit for BlackSky – the first of a series of five missions for the NYSE-listed surveillance company (or at least a re-do of the first mission after Rocket Lab lost two BlackSky satellites with its May Electron failure).

Each launch has more frisson now that Rocket Lab is listed on the Nasdaq.

Its shares were up 5.2 per cent to US$16.28 today for a market cap of US$7.3 billion.

The stock has 63 per cent since its August listing.

Despite pandemic disruption pushing Rocket Lab to a wider loss this year, investors have cheered developments including a fatter pipeline of contracts, an expansion of space systems manufacturing capacity, its US$45m acquisition of Colorado mission simulation and guidance system maker Advanced Solutions, and Rocket Lab securing US$24.35 million ($34m) in US military funding towards development of its much larger Neutron rocket.

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