Rocket Lab’s Electron Rocket Fails, Losing Seven Satellites
Matthew Greenwood posted on July 31, 2020 |
Mission lost thrust late in its launch, falling short of reaching orbit.
(Image courtesy of Rocket Lab Electron.)
(Image courtesy of Rocket Lab Electron.)

On July 4, a Rocket Lab mission lost power on its way to deliver seven satellites to orbit. The Electron rocket, and its payload, were lost. This is the first failure of the Electron to deliver its cargo to orbit—the vehicle had successfully delivered 12 payloads into space before the incident.

What We Know

The mission, dubbed “Pics or It Didn’t Happen,” was slated to deliver the commercial satellites to a 310-mile circular low-earth orbit. It launched from New Zealand a day earlier than scheduled to avoid several days worth of bad weather.

The $7.5 million rocket got off to a promising start, leaving the launch pad successfully. The first stage was powered by nine of Rocket Lab's Rutherford liquid-propellant engines, which combine to generate a peak thrust of 41,000 pounds of force. It was noted, though, that the Electron's passage through maximum dynamic pressure—the moment when the rocket undergoes the most stress of its journey—was rougher than on past launches. Video from the vehicle shows something peeling off shortly before first-stage separation—which was likely just a decal though that is unconfirmed.

It was during second-stage burn when the situation really started to go wrong. The second stage is powered by a single Rutherford engine with a larger nozzle optimized for operation in a vacuum. That engine can generate 5,000 pounds of force. Onboard video froze around 5 minutes 45 seconds after launch—or about 3 minutes into second-stage burn. The telemetry continued to be broadcasted, however, and showed the rocket losing thrust after velocity had peaked at around 8,500 miles per hour. The rocket reached a maximum altitude of 121 miles and started falling. That loss of thrust during the second stage prevented the rocket from reaching orbit to deploy its cargo. The vehicle and its cargo disintegrated on re-entry.

Rocket Lab's video of the failed launch.

Rocket Lab has committed to working with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to investigate the accident and figure out a fix. In the meantime, the company has suspended all future launches. “We won’t put another vehicle into the sky until we are really, really happy,” said Rocket Lab co-founder and CEO Peter Beck. “We have got thousands and thousands of channels of data to trawl through to figure out root cause and make any corrections.”

What Satellites Were Lost?

The mission's name, “Pics or It Didn’t Happen,” was a nod to the rocket's payload: a collection of cutting-edge imaging satellites.

The Canon CE-SAT-1B. (Image courtesy of Canon.)

The Canon CE-SAT-1B. (Image courtesy of Canon.)

The main payload for the mission was Canon's CE-SAT-1B, a satellite intended to demonstrate the company's experimental Earth-imaging technology—a technology that features high-resolution and wide-angle cameras that can capture images as small as 35 inches from orbit. Canon intended to use this launch as a test-bed to determine if the small satellite was ready for mass production.

Planet’s SuperDove. (Image courtesy of Planet.)
Planet’s SuperDove. (Image courtesy of Planet.)

In addition, Planet—a regular Rocket Lab customer—had five SuperDove cubesats, upgraded versions of the company's Dove cubesats. Like the Canon spacecraft, the SuperDoves are also imaging satellites. These satellites are upgraded versions of its original Dove line of cubesats, with additional spectral bands to support geospatial applications in fields like agriculture, planetary monitoring, natural resource management and infrastructure.

The Faraday 1 by In-Space. (Image courtesy of In-Space.)
The Faraday 1 by In-Space. (Image courtesy of In-Space.)

And the last satellite lost was In-Space's Faraday 1. The company provides space on its satellites for startups that want to put their technologies in orbit—but can't or don't want to build a satellite of their own. Faraday 1 was to be In-Space's first demonstration of its service. The smallsat was carrying payloads for Airbus, the Space Environment Research Centre in Australia, and startups Kleos Space, Lacuna Space, Canadensys Aerospace and Aeternum. It also carried the payload for a major industry player whose details are confidential due to a non-disclosure agreement. The satellite carried a software-defined payload that would allow In-Space to reprogram the satellite from the ground—with the end goal of allowing customers to upload software payloads while the satellite is in orbit.

Rocket Lab has been an innovator in the private sector space market—its Electron rocket features 3D-printed engines, battery-powered fuel pumps and a carbon composite structure. And while the failure of the Pics Or It Didn’t Happen mission is a significant setback for the company, Rocket Lab has vowed to set things right and continue launching.

Its customers seem confident that Rocket Lab will continue to be a reliable launch provider despite the loss. “We have full faith that Rocket Lab will be able to bounce back from today's failure in no time, and we look forward to flying on the Electron again," said Planet in a statement.

“Today's anomaly is a reminder that space launch can be unforgiving,” said Beck. “But we will identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible.”

Read more about Rocket Lab's cutting-edge technologies at Rocket Lab Enters the Smallsat Market.

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