The California-based company Rocket Lab carried out the operation. It was designed to demonstrate a method to make rockets reusable. It took place Monday above the South Pacific off New Zealand.
The helicopter was able to successfully grab onto a line attached to the falling rocket. However, the pilot noticed load differences that were not experienced in past tests. The pilot decided to drop the booster in the sea as a safety measure.
Rocket Lab uses a launch vehicle system called Electron to send satellites into orbit for private companies. The launches are carried out from the Mahia Peninsula, off the eastern coast of New Zealand's North Island.
Before the capture demonstration, an Electron rocket successfully launched and sent 34 satellites into orbit. After the deployment, the rocket's main booster began falling to Earth. The booster's speed was slowed to about 10 meters per second by a parachute.
The capture method was attempted at about 2,000 meters as the booster fell. The crew used a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter with a long line and hook attached to grab onto the booster's parachute line. The successful capture brought cheers from ground controllers during a live internet broadcast of the event.
But about 20 seconds later, sounds of disappointment could be heard from controllers when the pilot let the rocket go.
Rocket Lab said in a statement the decision to drop the booster was linked to "different load characteristics" that the helicopter team detected. Those differences had not been experienced in past tests of the helicopter capture method, the company said.
Even with the unexpected result, Rocket Lab creator and chief executive Peter Beck called the demonstration a big success. "They got a great catch. They just didn't like the way the load was feeling," he told reporters after the attempt.
Beck noted that nearly everything else in the demonstration went exactly as planned. He said the unexpected load issue was a small problem that project team members will immediately start studying and working to fix.
Beck said he hoped the company could still save some or all of the rocket booster, which was recovered from a boat after falling into the sea.
Rocket Lab says making its rockets reusable will permit the company to increase the number of launches it makes and reduce costs.
American company SpaceX designed the first reusable orbital rocket, the Falcon 9. The rocket uses a different recovery method to make its boosters reusable. The SpaceX boosters use engine power to guide themselves onto floating platforms in the sea.
I'm Bryan Lynn.