Rocket Lab boss Peter Beck offered some entertainment for locked-down space geeks this morning, posting a video of a recent test that saw a helicopter capture a falling Electron rocket stage (see video above).
Although only revealed today, the test took place a few weeks ago, 100km off the Auckland coast.
What was it all in aid of?
Beck explains to the Herald:
"Testing our ability to capture an Electron stage mid-air with a helicopter was one of the major milestones we needed to tick off as we work to make Electron reusable.
"It took a lot of planning and precision, but the helicopter pilot snagged the stage on the first attempt. He made a highly complex manoeuvre look easy."
It might be lower tech than Space X's use of thrusters to land its rockets, but the Kiwi number 8 wire approach is effective.
"And now that we've demonstrated we can catch it, one of the next phases of testing will see us attempt to recover an Electron first stage after a real launch later this year," Beck continues.
"That one won't be caught by a helicopter at first, rather it will come down under a chute for a soft landing in the ocean, then we'll collect it with a ship and bring it back to our production complex for refurbishment.
"As cool as catching rockets with helicopters is, it does actually have a functional purpose. By capturing the stages after launch and refurbishing them to be used again, we avoid the need to make a brand new stage for every mission. This means we can get rockets out of the factory even faster and launch more frequently to meet the needs of our customers."
Following the New Zealand government's guidance to stay home under Alert Level 4, Rocket Lab paused launch preparations to limit the spread of Covid-19 and to protect the health and safety of the mission team, their families and the wider New Zealand community, Beck says.
"Our team is working from home, making good progress on preparation for upcoming missions including our launch to the moon for Nasa in 2021."
On 19 March, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine announced that the agency's Michoud assembly facility and Stennis Space Center are in effect shutting down due to the rising number of cases in their local areas, but at this point the closures are pitched as temporary.
Beck adds, "We are working closely with our mission partners and the New Zealand government to determine when launch operations can safely resume.
"The launch vehicle and ground systems remain in a state of readiness for launch as soon as conditions allow. We're grateful for the ongoing collaboration and support of our mission partners through these challenging times."
As well as re-usable rocket testing, Beck has kept himself amused in the meantime with some April Fool's tweets:
It’s already on the pad. LOX fill started. https://t.co/q4VsMrnnRs— Peter Beck (@Peter_J_Beck) April 1, 2020