Two BlackSky Earth-imaging satellites were destroyed when a Rocket Lab Electron launcher malfunctioned about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff from New Zealand on Saturday, the launch company’s second failed flight in less than a year.
After a live video stream from the Electron launcher appeared to show the rocket’s second stage tumbling about two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff from New Zealand, Rocket Lab, a small satellite launch company based in Long Beach, California, verified the failure.
At 7:11 a.m. EDT, the rocket’s first stage booster propelled the mission off a launch pad at Rocket Lab’s private spaceport on New Zealand’s North Island, fuelled by nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford engines (1111 GMT; 11:11 p.m. local time).
The six-story Electron rocket took off with more than 50,000 pounds of thrust and arced toward the southeast from New Zealand, aiming to place two satellites into orbit for BlackSky, a Seattle-based remote sensing firm, after a one-hour delay to wait for improved upper-level wind conditions.
Around two and a half minutes after liftoff, the first stage’s engine burn appeared to end as expected. At an altitude of approximately 250,000 feet (75 kilometers) and a speed of roughly 5,100 mph, on-board video showed the carbon composite booster stage separating from the upper stage (8,200 kilometers per hour).
The second stage’s single Rutherford engine was expected to fire for more than six minutes in order to enter a provisional parking orbit, but the rocket appeared to spin out of control as the engine ignited.
After firing for a few seconds, the engine shut down prematurely, and velocity data on Rocket Lab’s live launch webcast showed the vehicle losing altitude, indicating a major issue.
Rocket Lab’s live webcast was cut short after the launch vehicle’s telemetry signals were disrupted. Around two hours later, the company released a statement confirming the launch failure.
According to the company, the rocket stayed inside the expected launch corridor and posed no danger to the public, Rocket Lab staff, or the launch site.
“We sincerely apologize to our customer BlackSky for the loss of their payloads,” said Peter Beck, the founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. “We recognize the enormous effort that goes into each spacecraft, and we share their grief and disappointment. Our team is working diligently to locate the issue, correct it, and return to the pad as soon as possible.”
Rocket Lab is investigating the failure and determining the root cause with the Federal Aviation Administration, which has regulatory oversight authority for U.S. launch firms, according to the company.
In a statement, Beck said, “Our team operated with professionalism and worked quickly to ensure the anomaly was managed safely on one of our toughest days.” “Our team is tenacious, and our top priority is to get our customers back in the air safely and reliably. We will take what we have learned to get back on the pad.”
With Saturday’s launch failure, two Rocket Lab flights have failed in the last year. An Electron upper stage failure in July was traced to a defective electrical connector that disconnected in flight and caused an early engine shutdown, according to engineers.
The failed mission in July resulted in the loss of seven small commercial satellites. Rocket Lab said it updated testing to better screen for bad connectors, and less than two months later, the company successfully launched its next Electron flight.
Before Saturday’s launch failure, Rocket Lab had completed six successful Electron missions in a row. Since Rocket Lab’s first attempt in 2017, three Electron rockets have failed to reach orbit, including a mishap on the first Electron test flight that officials blamed on a ground system error.
The Electron rocket was programmed to launch the BlackSky satellites into a 267-mile-high (430-kilometer) orbit, where they would join the company’s other seven commercial observation spacecraft.
The twin Earth-imaging satellites were expected to be the eighth and ninth spacecraft to join BlackSky’s Global fleet, weighing around 121 pounds (55 kilograms) each. Inside the Electron rocket’s payload fairing, the two spacecraft were placed one on top of the other for the first time, with a new dual payload adapter structure flying for the first time.
After the failure, Spaceflight, a Seattle-based ridesharing company that brokered the launch deal between Black Sky and Rocket Lab, tweeted that it was “a sad day.”
Spaceflight tweeted, “We are devastated for our customer BlackSky at the loss of this mission.” “As we learn more, we will share it.”
“For our constellation, we have developed a resilient and responsive strategy,” said BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole. “BlackSky has additional satellites ready to deploy, as well as an active production line with more satellites on the way later this year,” says the company. We will continue to expand our constellation, and we plan to stay on track to achieve our market objectives.”
According to BlackSky, each of the current generation of spacecraft can capture up to 1,000 color images per day from orbits about 280 miles (450 kilometers) above Earth, with a resolution of around 3 feet (1 meter). BlackSky is constructing a constellation of 16 to 24 microsatellites to capture high-resolution imagery for commercial and government clients, including the United States military.
LeoStella, a joint venture between BlackSky and the European satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space, designed the satellites in Tukwila, Washington.
Before Saturday’s flight, BlackSky announced that it had reached an agreement with Rocket Lab to launch nine high-resolution satellites by the end of 2021. In March, the first of the flights successfully delivered a single BlackSky spacecraft into orbit.
Later this year, three more dedicated Rocket Lab missions for BlackSky were planned, each carrying two satellites. On Saturday, it was too early to tell how the launch failure would affect those plans.
The Electron rocket from Rocket Lab is designed to send tiny satellites into orbit, giving spacecraft a dedicated trip that would otherwise have to travel as a lower-priority payload on a larger launch vehicle.
The Electron rocket will lift about 1% of the weight of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster. Dedicated Electron missions can be purchased for as little as $7 million from Rocket Lab.
Rocket Lab is experimenting with recovering and reusing the Electron rocket’s first stage in order to reduce costs and increase launch rates. Last year, the company was successful in recovering an intact booster from the Pacific Ocean, and the launch on Saturday featured an improved heat shield designed to help minimize heating and stress on the rocket during re-entry.