Helicopter catches returning rocket booster over the Pacific as it fell back to Earth after launch

The US-New Zealand Rocket Lab company has taken a big step forward in its quest to re-use its launch vehicles by catching one as it fell back to Earth.

A helicopter grabbed the booster in mid-air as it parachuted back towards the Pacific Ocean after a mission to orbit 34 satellites.

The pilots weren’t entirely happy with how the rocket stage felt slung beneath them and released it for a splashdown.

Nonetheless, company boss Peter Beck lauded his team’s efforts.

“Bringing a rocket back from space and catching it with a helicopter is something of a supersonic ballet,” the CEO said.

“A tremendous number of factors have to align and many systems have to work together flawlessly, so I am incredibly proud of the stellar efforts of our recovery team and all of our engineers who made this mission and our first catch a success.”

Mr Beck said the hard parts of rocket recovery had now been proven and he looked forward to his staff perfecting their mid-air technique.

The rocket was intact and appeared to have coped extremely well with the heat that would have been generated on the descent through the atmosphere.

Rocket Lab launches its two-stage Electron vehicles from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula.

The first stage does the initial work of getting a mission off Earth, and once its propellants are expended it falls back towards the planet. The second, or upper, stage, completes the task of placing its satellite passengers in orbit.

Tuesday’s mission, dubbed “There And Back Again”, left the ground at 10:49 NZST.

Its primary objective was to take a diverse group of 35 spacecraft to orbit, more than 500km above the Earth.