A failure in the second stage of the combustion of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket caused the crash of seven small commercial satellites on Earth Saturday after takeoff from New Zealand.
Carrying satellites from the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom, the Electron launcher took off from the private space port of Rocket Lab on the North Island of New Zealand at 5:19:36 PM EDT (2119: 36 GMT ).
The 55-foot (17-meter) liquid fuel rocket was designed to deploy small satellites at an altitude of 310 miles (500 kilometers), but a malfunction during the second stage of Electron’s combustion prevented the rocket from reach the speed required to enter a stable orbit around the Earth.
“We lost the flight late in the mission,” tweeted Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab. “I am extremely sorry that we did not deliver our customers’ satellites today. Rest assured that we will find the problem, fix it and come back to the pavement soon. ”
In a statement released on Saturday, Rocket Lab said the problem that caused the launch to fail occurred “about four minutes after the flight.” The company said the rocket remained in its flight safety corridor and that it was working with the Federal Aviation Administration to “investigate the anomaly and identify its root cause to correct the problem and move forward.”
The first visual evidence of a problem during Rocket Lab’s live video webcast on Saturday’s mission came a little later.
The video stream seemed to show that the second stage of the Electron was firing normally until the live rocket stream froze at T + plus 5 minutes and 41 seconds. At the same time, the telemetry data displayed on the Rocket Lab video stream showed that the rocket stop accelerated at a speed of 8,509 mph, or almost 13,700 kilometers per hour.
An altitude display showed that the rocket continued to climb for an additional 26 seconds, reaching a maximum altitude of 121 miles (194.8 kilometers) before descending to Earth. The rocket and its payloads probably disintegrated and burned after they entered the atmosphere.
This is when the video stream from Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle ended and the live telemetry seemed to show that the rocket had stopped accelerating.
The data flow showed that the rocket had reached a maximum altitude of 194.8 kilometers before falling back to Earth.https: //t.co/GMLbgXLtm5 pic.twitter.com/mCydc8XJzI
– Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) 4 juillet 2020
The seven satellites lost during Saturday’s failed launch belonged to Canon, Planet and a British start-up named In-Space Missions.
Canon’s CE-SAT-1B terrestrial imagery spacecraft was the largest of the mission’s payloads on Saturday. The 147-pound (67-kilogram) satellite was cube-shaped and a little larger than a dorm refrigerator.
Its camera system was designed to be able to solve objects on the ground as small as about 3 feet, or 90 centimeters, according to Canon. CE-SAT-1B was to be Canon’s second satellite in orbit, and the Japanese electronics company – eyeing a fleet of Earth observation satellites – intended to test the design of the spacecraft for future production massive.
Spaceflight, a Seattle-based carpooling launch broker acquired by the Japanese conglomerate Mitsui last month, organized the launch of the CE-SAT-1B spacecraft with Rocket Lab.
“We are of course disappointed, while still being aware that launch failures are part of space activities,” Spaceflight said in a statement. “We will work closely with Rocket Lab and our customer Canon Electronics who had their CE-SAT-IB imaging satellite on board this mission to determine next steps, but we are not discouraged in our determination to bring our customers in the space.
“We trust all of our launchers, including Electron, and look forward to many successful launches with them,” said Spaceflight.
On Saturday, five nanosatellites for observing the planet’s SuperDove Earth were also on board the Rocket Lab Electron rocket. The SuperDoves were advanced versions of Planet’s medium-resolution Dove satellites, and are each the size of a shoebox.
Based in San Francisco, Planet operates a fleet of over 120 Earth observation satellites providing daily imagery coverage across the entire global land mass, providing data on changing functionality to governments and businesses. The five SuperDoves launched on Saturday with Rocket Lab were part of Planet’s “Flock 4e” batch of nanosatellites.
“Although this is never the result we hope for, the risk of launch failure is that for which Planet is always prepared,” Planet said in a statement on its website. “We already have 26 SuperDoves, Flock 4v, scheduled to launch on a Vega rocket later this summer, and several more launches in the next 12 months are on the manifest. ”
The other payload for Rocket Lab’s failed launch on Saturday was Faraday 1, a CubeSat from Britain’s In-Space Missions. The 6U CubeSat is approximately the size of a small case and is the first in a series of small satellites planned for space missions.
“The In-Space team is absolutely flabbergasted by this news,” the company tweeted. “Two years of hard work by an incredibly committed group of brilliant engineers. It was really a very cool little spaceship. ”
Faraday 1 was loaded with experimental payloads, including a radio defined by Airbus Defense and Space software that can be remotely reprogrammed in orbit. Other payloads on Faraday 1 were to continue applications such as the Internet of Things, the characterization of a ground laser, 360-degree optical video imaging, radio spectrum monitoring, real-time video from space and satellite communications, according to Space In -Missions.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket takes off from the Mahia peninsula in New Zealand, propelling satellites into orbit for Canon, Planet and the British startup In-Space Missions.
WATCH LIVE: https://t.co/GMLbgXLtm5 pic.twitter.com/4ap9HALRZR
– Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) 4 juillet 2020
The launch on Saturday was the 13th mission of the Rocket Lab electron booster, which is sized to transport small satellites into orbit during dedicated missions. Rocket Lab says its launch service allows small businesses to place their payloads in more ideal orbits according to their own schedule, rather than taking a carpool or secondary location for a larger rocket.
A ground system problem forced the end of the first launch of the Electron test in 2017. Rocket Lab officials said that the Electron rocket operated normally on this mission until the range security teams had to send the termination command.
Based in Long Beach, California, Rocket Lab has had 11 successful consecutive launches since then, delivering 53 small orbiting satellites to commercial customers, universities, NASA, the U.S. Army and the National Reconnaissance Office.
Before Saturday’s failed launch, Rocket Lab said it was aiming to launch on a monthly basis for the rest of 2020 and into 2021. The company said it plans to launch its first Electron rocket from a new launch site in Wallops Island, Virginia, as soon as August.
Rocket Lab’s next launch from New Zealand was to transport a commercial radar surveillance satellite into orbit for Capella Space, a San Francisco startup developing a constellation of all-weather Earth imagery spacecraft.
The company said in a statement on Saturday that it had eight Electron rockets in production at factories in Auckland, New Zealand, and southern California.
Made of carbon fiber materials and powered by 3D printed electric turbopumps, the Electron rocket has many missions on the books, including flights for the U.S. Army, NRO and NASA, which announced a more contract early this year for Rocket Lab to launch a CubeSat to the moon.
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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.