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Unlucky 13: Rocket Lab Electron Launch Fails

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 4, 2020
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Electron’s second stage fires. (Credit: Rocket Lab webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Rocket Lab’s 13th launch of its Electron booster was unlucky today, with a failure of the second stage sending seven small satellites to burn up in the atmosphere instead of entering orbit after launch from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

“An issue was experienced today during Rocket Lab’s launch that caused the loss of the vehicle. We are deeply sorry to the customers on board Electron. The issue occurred late in the flight during the 2nd stage burn. More information will be provided as it becomes available,” the company tweeted.

Based on Rocket Lab’s live webcast, the failure appeared to have occurred as the second stage was preparing for its battery hot swap. Two batteries powering the engine’s turbo pumps are ejected and a third battery takes over for the rest of the trip to orbit.

Controllers lost the live video feed from the second stage but continue to receive data. Telemetry displayed on the webcast showed the booster gradually losing altitude.

Rocket Lab subsequently ended the webcast without any further comment on the mission’s status. The company provided a later update via Twitter.

It was the second failure of the booster in 13 launch attempts. An Electron failed on its maiden flight in May 2017 due to an anomaly with communications equipment on the ground.

This flight’s primary payload was Canon Electronics Inc.’s CE-SAT-IB satellite, which was designed to image the Earth using high-resolution and wide-angle cameras.

Electron also carried five SuperDove Earth imaging satellites for Planet. The spacecraft were equipped with new sensors to enable higher image quality with sharper, more vibrant colors and accurate surface reflectant values.

The SuperDoves Flock 4v were equipped with new sensors to enable higher image quality with sharper, more vibrant colors and accurate surface reflectance values for advanced algorithms and time-series analysis.

The Faraday-1 6U Cubesat built by InSpace Missions of Great Britain was also lost. The spacecraft was designed to provide a low-cost way for customers to fly hosted payloads into orbit. The satellite was designed to test In-Space’s own software-defined payload that would enable payload capabilities to be uploaded to satellites on future missions.