This September 19 in the morning, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket took off for the 41st time… but routine is a terrible enemy: after the separation of the first stage, the rocket suffered a failure and was unable to reach orbit. The Capella Space radar satellite she was carrying is lost, and the investigation begins.
With the time difference, the New Zealand Rocket Lab teams are having a very bad evening. The small Electron rocket took off on September 19, 2023 at 8:55 a.m., after a small delay of a few minutes. When the flames illuminated the Mahia Peninsula, everything went normally, and the launcher quickly soared into the sky. For the teams on site, it has become a habit, because the operator has managed to improve its rates to exceed one firing per month… So much so that, in the integration hangar, another Electron rocket is already almost ready to take off. But it will have to stay on the ground longer than expected, because this morning’s launch ended in failure.
One floor and a hangover
Although it successfully tore itself from the ground to leave the New Zealand coast, Electron unfortunately did not last long. After 2 minutes and 30 seconds of flight, the first stage and its nine engines had completed their action, and separated from the second. But when its sole engine is ignited rutherford adapted to vacuum, the video feed abruptly stopped, while telemetry showed that the launcher continued to slow down… Either it did not ignite, or this action broke something and it immediately stopped.
In any case, the stage did not reach space (nor orbit) and it fell back into the sea, within the maritime exclusion zone demarcated by the authorities. Today’s customer, Capella Space, which was deploying a third “Acadia” radar satellite with Rocket Lab, will have to use its insurance to obtain a reimbursement.
For Electron, this is a setback, because an investigation is underway to determine the causes of the failure, so it is unlikely that the rocket will be able to restart in the coming weeks or months. At the 40th flight, this is not an engine design problem. If it’s a hardware problem, you need to identify the error and make sure it doesn’t happen again, and if it’s human error, you need to work on the processes, including to quality control, so that the situation no longer arises. Space is hard…
A reputation to uphold
Rocket Lab has already had failures. This is the fourth with Electron, after 2017, 2020 and 2021. But it was 20 shots (out of 41 in total) that the company no longer had to experience the embarrassment of a dead loss associated with an investigation on the launcher. This is particularly annoying, especially when Rocket Lab is trying to finally make a profit (it is a public company listed on the stock exchange). And that the objective of the year was to increase rates by making maximum use of the two launch sites available in Virginia and New Zealand.
Too bad, we will have to review the copy, especially since recently, Rocket Lab received several contracts for orbital and suborbital flights (HASTE project). Four failures in 41 flights is not hopeless, but it will put the company under pressure, while some competitors are finally starting to experience the taste of success, like Firefly. Lucky for them, the current congestion on launch services gives them room to maneuver to return to the forefront.
A return by December?
In reality, this could be “quickly” resolved: during its last flight accident with the Electron launcher, Rocket Lab reported the conclusions of its investigation in just 70 days… Which, by the standards of the space world, is very tight ! For example, the Vega C launcher which had an incident last December will not fly again in 2023.
However, the fourth quarter may be more difficult than expected for Rocket Lab, which was targeting this deadline to try to make a profit!
Source : Rocket Lab on YouTube