Two satellites lost in Rocketlab launch mishap

·3 min read

A Rocketlab Electron booster thundered away from the company's picturesque New Zealand launch site Saturday, but the rocket's two-satellite payload was lost when the vehicle suffered a malfunction just after second stage engine ignition two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

Counting an initial test flight in 2017, it was the third failure in 20 launchings of Rocketlab's innovative 60-foot-tall Electron rocket, designed to lift small satellites to orbit that might otherwise have to wait for rides aboard larger, more expensive boosters.

It was not immediately known what went wrong, what might be required to fix it or when flights might resume. But the mishap was Rocketlab's second failure in the last eight flights, a disheartening setback in the company's drive to secure a major role in the small satellite launch market.

"An issue was experienced during today's launch, resulting in the loss of the mission," the company said in a tweet. "We are deeply sorry to our launch customers BlackSky and Spaceflight. The issue occurred shortly after stage two ignition. More information will be provided as it becomes available."

An issue was experienced during today's launch, resulting in the loss of the mission. We are deeply sorry to our launch customers BlackSky and Spaceflight. The issue occurred shortly after stage two ignition. More information will be provided as it becomes available.

— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) May 15, 2021

Liftoff from the company's picturesque New Zealand launch site was held up a little more than an hour by high upper level winds, but conditions improved as the evening wore on and the Electron's nine 3D-printed Rutherford engines ignited at 7:11 a.m. EDT (11:11 p.m. local time), kicking off a sky lighting climb to space.

Propelling the rocket out of the lower atmosphere, the first stage engines shut down two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff as planned and the booster fell away from the rocket's upper stage. The Electron was about 47 miles up at stage separation and traveling at more than 5,000 mph.

A Rocketlab Electron rocket blasts off from the company's New Zealand launch site Saturday, kicking off a mission to launch two commercial Earth-observation satellites. The BlackSky satellites were lost after a rocket malfunction shortly after launch. / Credit: Rocketlab webcast
A Rocketlab Electron rocket blasts off from the company's New Zealand launch site Saturday, kicking off a mission to launch two commercial Earth-observation satellites. The BlackSky satellites were lost after a rocket malfunction shortly after launch. / Credit: Rocketlab webcast

The separation sequence appeared normal, but a camera mounted on the rocket showed what appeared to be a sudden tumble when the second stage's single vacuum-rated Rutherford engine ignited. A moment later, another view showed what appeared to be the second stage engine nozzle cooling down after a presumed premature shutdown.

Raw imagery from on-board cameras is difficult to interpret, but Rocketlab reported a loss of telemetry and ended its launch webcast a few moments later. About 40 minutes after that, the company confirmed via Twitter that the vehicle and satellites were lost. No other details were immediately available.

There was no immediate word on efforts to recover the Electron's first stage after a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean southeast of New Zealand. Rocketlab is testing materials and procedures to permit eventual recovery, refurbishment and re-use of first stage components.

The stage was expected to splash down about the same time the second stage would have reached orbit had the flight gone as planned.

Lost in the mishap were two 121-pound satellites, the eighth and ninth in Seattle-based BlackSky Global's growing constellation of Earth-observation "microsatellites." The launch was arranged through Spaceflight Inc.

The satellites featured powerful cameras capable of resolving surface features as small as three feet across. The imagery is marketed to commercial and government customers.

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