Rocket Lab’s 13th Electron flight ends in failure, loss of payload

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Rocket Lab had a failure in its latest mission.
Image: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab is an ambitious spaceflight startup with hopes of delivering affordable payloads to orbit. Unfortunately, it recently suffered a setback.

The company’s 13th mission ended in disaster on Saturday after experiencing “an anomaly” on its way to space. Its Electron rocket unexpectedly stalled and lost altitude approximately six minutes into the launch. Rocket Lab says it lost both the rocket and its payload of seven satellites.

Pics Or It Didn’t Happen

Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle successfully took off at 5:19 p.m. ET on July 4. The launch occurred at the startup’s primary facility on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. For the first several minutes, things seemed to be going smoothly.

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However, near the six-minute mark, an anomaly derailed the launch. The first suggestion of a problem was a stalled video feed from the Electron rocket. The startup’s live stream then indicated that the vehicle started losing speed. Accordingly, the rocket then dropped in altitude. Rocket Lab eventually cut the live stream due to the failure and later revealed that the rocket had been lost.

It released a statement on Twitter, saying, “An issue was experienced today during Rocket Lab’s launch that caused the loss of the vehicle… The issue occurred late in the flight during the 2nd stage burn.”

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck further apologized for the launch failure, saying, “We are deeply sorry to our customers Spaceflight Inc., Canon Electronics Inc., Planet, and In-Space Missions for the loss of their payloads.”

He added, “We know many people poured their hearts and souls into those spacecraft. Today’s anomaly is a reminder that space launch can be unforgiving, but we will identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible.”

The mission, codenamed “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen,” hosted seven small satellites from multiple customers. Its primary payload was the CE-SAT-IB high-resolution Earth-imaging satellite from Canon Electronics. It was accompanied by five SuperDove satellites from Planet and a Faraday-1 satellite from In-Space Missions. The latter included instruments from other startups and organizations that needed a ticket to space.

Rocket Labs is currently investigating the failure so it can be rectified for future missions.

Bad Luck

Despite the recent failure, Rocket Lab has had an impressive run so far. The startup has put an impressive 53 spacecraft into low Earth orbit since its inception during 12 separate missions.

Rocket Lab’s very first flight, 2017’s “It’s a Test,” didn’t reach orbit. Even so, the rocket did successfully launch and make it into space. That makes its 13th mission the first to experience a major failure. Still, the startup holds a pretty impressive record.

Of course, Rocket Lab will need to return to its successful ways if it wants to retain the reputation it has built over the past several years. So long as the next Electron launch goes according to plan, it should be able to move on from Saturday’s disaster.

Looking forward, Rocket Lab is scheduled to launch a NASA lunar satellite in early 2021. The CubeSat will help NASA learn more about a unique lunar orbit it is targeting for its Lunar Gateway project.

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