Interstellar Technologies’ fifth launch of its Momo suborbital rocket went awry on Saturday, with the suborbital booster tumbling out of control just over a minute after lift off from Taiki Aerospace Research Field in Japan.
Video of the flight streamed online showed the rocket suffering what the company has called a failure of attitude control about 1 minute 16 seconds into the flight. The booster pitched over and began plunging toward the ocean.
It was the fifth flight of the booster, which has failed four times. Momo’s lone success came in May 2019 when the rocket reached 113.4 kilometers (70.5 miles), which is above the 100 km (62.1 mile) boundary of space known as the Karman line.
Momo rockets launched in 2017 and 2019 reached only 20 km (12 miles) and 13 km (8.1 miles), respectively, before suffering catastrophic failures.
A Momo launched in June 2018 rose for four seconds before crashing back onto the pad and exploding.
The Japan Timesreports that Interstellar Technologies fourth launch of is Momo rocket failed on Saturday.
The vehicle only reached an altitude of 13 kilometers following the launch at 4:20 p.m., falling into the sea some 9 kilometers (about 5.5. miles) offshore from Taiki, Hokkaido, its test site, Interstellar Technologies said.
The rocket is the same model as Momo-3, measuring about 10 meters long, 50 centimeters in diameter and weighing 1 ton.
After failed attempts in 2017 and 2018, the startup finally found success with its third launch in May, with the rocket reaching an altitude of around 113 km before falling into the Pacific Ocean.
Founded in 2013 by former Livedoor Co. President Takafumi Horie, Interstellar Technologies aims to develop low-cost commercial rockets to carry satellites into space.
The third time was the charm for Interstellar Technologies.
On Saturday, the company’s suborbital Momo-3 rocket lifted off from its launch pad in Hokkaido and reached an altitude of 110 km (68.4 miles) before falling into the Pacific Ocean about 10 minutes later, The Japan Timesreports.
“It was a complete success. We’ll work to achieve stable launches and mass-produce (rockets) in quick cycles,” company founder Takafumi Horie told The Japan Times.
Measuring 10 meters in length and 50 centimeters in diameter and weighing 1 ton, it was first due to be launched Tuesday, but that launch was shelved due to a glitch in the fuel system.
It was the venture company’s third launch attempt after previous tries failed in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, the operator lost contact with Momo-1 shortly after launch. In 2018, Momo-2 only made it some 20 meters off the ground before crashing and bursting into flames due to a problem with a control system.
The MOMO sounding rocket is designed to carry a payload weighting up to 20 kg (44 lb) on suborbital flights at a cost of approximately ¥50 million (~$450,000).
Interstellar is also developing the ZERO booster to carry payloads weighing up to 100 kg (220.5 lb) to a 500 km (310.7 mile) sun synchronous orbit. The company hopes to conduct ZERO’s first flight test in 2020.
There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.
The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.
A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.
Throughout the Space Age, suborbital flight has been the least exciting segment of the launch market. Operating in the shadow of their much larger orbital cousins, sounding rockets carrying scientific instruments, microgravity experiments and technology demonstrations have flown to the fringes of space with little fanfare or media attention.
The suborbital sector has become much more dynamic in recent years now that billionaires have started spending money in it. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic both made significant progress last year in testing New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo, respectively. Their achievements have raised the real possibility of suborbital space tourism flights in 2019. (I know. Promises, promises…. But, this year they might finally really do it. I think.)
Video Caption: Interstellar Technologies, founded by popular internet service provider Livedoor’s creator Takafumi Horie, launched the unmanned rocket, MOMO-2, from a test site in Taiki.
The outlandish, Ferrari-driving Horie — who helped drive Japan’s shift to an information-based economy in the late 1990s and the early 2000s but later spent nearly two years in jail for accounting fraud — founded Interstellar in 2013. However, privately backed efforts to explore space from Japan have so far failed to compete with the government-run Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
SpaceX had a banner year in 2017, launching a record 18 times and helping to propel the United States to the top of the global launch table with a perfect 29-0 record. The U.S. total made up 32.2 percent of 90 orbital launches worldwide, which was an increase over the 85 flights conducted in 2016.
The 29 American launches were a leap of seven over the 22 flights conducted the previous year. This is the highest number of American orbital launches since the 31 flights undertaken in 1999. However, that year the nation’s launch providers suffered four failures whereas they were perfect in 2017.