by Douglas Messier
MOJAVE, Calif. — A loud boom echoed across California’s Mojave Desert on Wednesday afternoon. I would normally pay little attention to it given how common such occurrences are in Mojave. But, this one was different: instead of nearly daily boom-boom of jet fighters from nearby Edwards Air Force Base going supersonic, this one was a single large BOOM!
And oh, there was a giant cloud of black smoke rising from the rocket test area at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Someone’s engine test had clearly gone awry.
I wasn’t particularly concerned. There are safety procedures in place to protect people doing engine tests from harm if an engines suffers an anomaly during a test. Nobody wants a repeat of the 2007 incident where three Scaled Composites engineers were killed during a test stand explosion.
My first thought, based on the color of the smoke and previous tests I had seen, was one of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rubber engine cores had suffered a failure. But, not this time.
It turns out ABL Space Systems had destroyed a second stage of its RS1 rocket during a test. As I expected, the company reported no injuries from the explosion.
Based in El Segundo, Calif., ABL is one of scores of companies — they numbered north of 100 a few years back — seeking to capture part of the small-satellite launch market. The two-stage RS1 rocket will be capable of launching 1,350 kg (2,976 lb) to low Earth orbit at $12 million per flight. The booster is designed to be easily transported in shipping containers and rapidly set up, fueled and launched at the destination.
Rapid launch is a capability that is of great interest to the U.S. military. ABL has received contracts worth $44.5 million from the U.S. Air Force, and it has worked with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to develop and test components.
It’s not clear how much RS1’s maiden flight will be delayed by the accident in Mojave. As with most launch providers, the company has been running considerably behind schedule as it grapples with technical issues and the COVID-19 pandemic.
ABL had planned to conduct a demonstration launch of RS1 as early as March 2021 from Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska on Kodiak Island. The company has also announced plans to launch satellites from Spaceport Camden in Georgia and from the Shetland Space Centre in Scotland.
Lockheed Martin UK contracted with ABL to launch six CubeSats from Shetland Space Centre later this year. In November, Amazon announced plans to launch the first two satellites of its Kuiper broadband constellation on an RS1 booster in the fourth quarter of this year.