Rocketlab's Second S-92 Midair Rocket Capture Fails

 - November 4, 2022, 2:27 PM
Rocketlab's Sikosky S-92A is equipped with long-range auxiliary fuel tanks, bubble windows to enhance crew visibility, and a long line attached to a hook designed to snag the first stage of the company's rockets as it falls back to Earth under a parachute. (Photo: Rocketlab)

Rocketlab’s second attempt to catch its Electron low earth orbit (LEO) launch vehicle’s first stage in midair with a Sikorsky S-92A failed this afternoon approximately 160 nm off the New Zealand coast. “We have had an update from the [helicopter] pilots and unfortunately it looks like we are not going to bring Electron home dry today, but we do have the backup option of an ocean splashdown,” Rocketlab’s mission control announced minutes after the rocket’s second and first stages successfully separated. 

The failure was blamed on a loss of telemetry from the rocket’s first stage on reentry. “The standard procedure for safety is that we pull the helicopter out of the recovery zone when this happens, so we couldn’t attempt a catch today,” according to mission control.

The company’s “Catch Me If You Can” mission placed a Swedish atmospheric research satellite in an orbit 324 nm above the Earth. The Mesospheric Airglow/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy satellite is designed to investigate atmospheric waves. 

To date, Rocketlab has placed 152 satellites in orbit with its 60-foot-long Electron launch vehicle that features engines fabricated with 3D printing and carbon-fiber construction. The company plans to relocate launch operations from New Zealand to Wallops Island, Virginia, next year. Today’s launch was Electron’s 32nd.

The S-92 used for the recovery has a three-man crew: pilot, copilot, and rocket spotter. It is equipped with long-range auxiliary fuel tanks, bubble windows to enhance crew visibility, and a long line attached to a hook designed to snag the first stage as it falls back to Earth under a parachute. When drained of propellant, the first stage weighs approximately one ton. The stage is falling at a speed of approximately 19.4 knots.

Rocketlab’s first mission attempt to retrieve a falling rocket stage with an S-92 failed on May 3. While the helicopter did manage to snare the falling rocket stage, the pilot elected to jettison it after noticing “different load characteristics than we’ve experienced in testing,” according to a company spokeswoman.