Rocket Lab's recovery helicopter. Courtesy of Rocket Lab.

While successfully deploying 34 satellites into orbit, Rocket Lab pilots caught a first stage rocket booster in mid-air as it fell back to Earth.

The Long Beach-based rocket manufacturer and launch service provider’s 26th launch of its Electron rocket—dubbed “There And Back Again,” a nod to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”—was a rideshare mission, carrying payloads for Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Spaceflight Inc. and Unseenlabs.

Among the payloads were satellites that will “monitor light pollution, demonstrate space junk removal technologies, improve power restraints in small satellites, validate technology for sustainable satellite systems that can avoid collisions with untrackable space objects, enable internet from space and build upon a maritime surveillance constellation,” the company stated.

The mission took off from Rocket Lab’s New Zealand complex just before 4 p.m. PDT Monday after inclement weather delayed the launch for several days.

“The mid-air helicopter capture was unprecedented because it was not only the first time Rocket Lab has attempted to recover the first set stage of a rocket in that manner but [it’s] also the first time any company has used a helicopter to catch a returning rocket from space,” a company spokesperson said in an email Tuesday.

The revolutionary maneuver comes after the successful recovery of the first stage during the company’s 16th, 20th and 22nd Electron launches, which included controlled ocean splashdowns.

About two and a half minutes after lift-off, Electron’s first stage detaches and begins its descent back to earth at speeds of almost 5,150 mph.

During both the splashdowns and the mid-air capture, an internal system re-orients the stage for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, allowing it to survive heat upward of 4,350 degrees and extreme pressure. A small parachute deploys first at an altitude of just over 8.3 miles to stabilize the stage. At about 3.7 miles from Earth’s surface, the main parachute is extracted, slowing the stage’s descent to about 22 mph.

Once the stage is in the capture zone, a helicopter crew uses a hook to snag the parachute line before delivering it to Rocket Lab’s recovery ship for transport back to land.

The company’s recovery team practiced the mid-air capture numerous times before the mission.

“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly.”

Rocket Lab engineers now will assess the stage to determine if adjustments are needed to the system for the next helicopter catch and eventual reuse.

Rocket Lab has now delivered 146 satellites to orbit.

The next launch window for the firm, a lunar mission in partnership with NASA dubbed CAPSTONE, is set to open later this month, the company said, declining to disclose the exact date.

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.