Rocket Lab Launches Satellite, Fails to Catch Booster in Midair

By now, SpaceX makes it look easy to land its first stage boosters on a drone barge. As a competing satellite launch company called Rocket Labs learned earlier today, though, catching a descending booster in midair is a little harder.

Rocket Labs launched a Swedish satellite called Mesospheric Airglow/Aerosol Tomography and Spectroscopy (MATS) at 1:27 EDT today (November 4). Then it tried to catch its Electron rocket with a helicopter in an operation that it cheekily calls “Catch Me If You Can.”

According to a Rocket Labs spokesperson, a communication issue caused the failure to catch the descending rocket.

“We are not bringing Electron home dry on this mission due to some telemetry loss from the rocket’s first stage during reentry,” said Rocket Lab communications manager Murielle Baker.

Rocket Labs previously launched Electron 31 times, with most of them sending small satellites into orbit. The 18-meter-tall rocket is too small to land vertically and typically expendable. Like SpaceX, Rocket Labs aims to make it a reusable rocket booster to bring launch costs down – hence the attempts to catch it in midair.

It did manage to briefly snag the Electron in a similar attempt in May. However, the rocket managed to slip loose and fell into the ocean. The attempts involve trying to grab the Electron’s parachute line with a hook as it descends.

Rocket Labs did manage to retrieve the previously used Electron and refurbish it for reuse. However, it would prefer that its rockets not be exposed to the corrosive seawater.

Did you know that Sweden has a space agency?

MATS belongs to the Swedish National Space Agency (SNSA), which will use it to study the ways that Earth’s upper atmosphere influences wind and weather patterns. MATS will measure atmospheric waves by measuring the variation in the light emitted by oxygen molecules that reside at an altitude of 100 kilometers. It will also observe noctilucent clouds, which are most often found at an altitude of 80 kilometers.

The Swedish National Space Agency also operates the ODIN satellite, which launched in 2001. For the first six years of its life, it made astronomical observations until the SNSA decided to end that side of ODIN’s operations. Since then, ODIN made observations of Earth’s atmosphere as part of a partnership with the European Space Agency.

The satellite was originally scheduled to launch on a Russian rocket. However, due to sanctions against Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, the Swedish National Space Agency became one of many organizations that had to find an alternative for launching hardware.

Luckily, it found Rocket Labs, a satellite launch company based in California. Rocket Labs has manufacturing and mission operations facilities in Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, Maryland, Toronto, and New Zealand.