A Rocket Lab recovery team member stands by the firm's Sikorsky S-92 helicopter. Photo courtesy of Rocket Lab.

Later this month, Long Beach-based spacecraft manufacturer and launch service provider Rocket Lab will attempt to catch its rocket in mid-air as it falls back to Earth from space, the company announced today.

The “There and Back Again” mission is set to blast off from the firm’s New Zealand facility as early as April 19, carrying a payload of 34 satellites in one of Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicles.

About two and a half minutes after liftoff, the first stage of the rocket will separate from the second and begin its fall back to Earth at about 5,150 mph, reaching temperatures of over 4,352 degrees. A drogue parachute will deploy at an altitude of 8.3 miles, followed by the main parachute at 3.7 miles, slowing the rocket to about 22 mph.

When the stage enters the capture zone, Rocket Lab’s recovery team will attempt to catch it by the parachute, using a hook attached to a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter. Once secured, the crew will transport the stage back to land for analysis and potential re-flight.

“We’re excited to enter this next phase of the Electron recovery program,” founder and CEO Peter Beck said in the announcement. “Trying to catch a rocket as it falls back to Earth is no easy feat, we’re absolutely threading the needle here, but pushing the limits with such complex operations is in our DNA.”

Rocket Lab has conducted numerous successful helicopter captures using replicas of the rocket stage and carried out extensive parachute tests, the company stated.

Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter will be used to try to catch the first stage of a rocket as it falls back to earth. Photo courtesy of Rocket Lab.

The firm also has three successful ocean recovery missions for the Electron under its belt, including its Nov. 18 “Love at First Insight” mission. Analysis from the ocean recoveries informed design modifications that enabled Electron to better withstand the unforgiving re-entry environment as well as develop procedures for an eventual helicopter capture.

“Now it’s time to put it all together for the first time and pluck Electron from the skies,” Beck said.

“There and Back Again” is a rideshare mission, which includes satellites from Alba Orbital, Astrix Astronautics, Aurora Propulsion Technologies, E-Space, Unseenlabs and Swarm Technologies via global launch services provider Spaceflight. The mission will be Rocket Lab’s third of the year and 26th launch overall.

If successful, the launch will bring the total number of satellites carried to orbit by Electron to 146.

“We expect to learn a tremendous amount from the mission as we work toward the ultimate goal of making Electron the first reusable orbital small sat launcher,” Beck said, “and providing our customers with even more launch availability.”

Rocket Lab’s fourth mission of 2022 is slated to launch May 3. The mission is the company’s first journey to the moon and is part of NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, also known as CAPSTONE.

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