Failure strikes Rocket Lab after launch from New Zealand

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Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle lifts off Tuesday from New Zealand on an ill-fated mission.

Rocket Lab’s string of 20 consecutive successful launches ended Tuesday when the company’s Electron rocket failed to deliver a small commercial radar imaging satellite into orbit.

The problem occurred on the upper stage of the Electron rocket about two and a half minutes after liftoff from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. This was the fourth time a Rocket Lab mission has failed in 41 flights.

In a statement, Rocket Lab said it is “working closely” with the Federal Aviation Administration and supporting agencies as the company begins an investigation into the cause of the failure. While Rocket Lab launches most of its missions from New Zealand, the company is headquartered in the United States, giving the FAA regulatory oversight authority over failure investigations.

“We will identify the issue swiftly and implement corrective actions and return to the pad shortly,” Rocket Lab said. The company’s stock price was down about 8 percent in early trading Tuesday.

The mission began with liftoff of the 59-foot-tall (18-meter) Electron rocket from New Zealand at 2:55 am EDT (06:55 UTC). The launch was delayed nearly 30 minutes due to elevated levels of solar activity.

The Electron rocket’s nine kerosene-fueled engines burned for more than two minutes, sending the launch vehicle on a trajectory toward the southeast from Rocket Lab’s privately owned spaceport. Everything went well with the first stage burn and stage separation, according to Rocket Lab, until the second stage was expected to light its single engine to continue accelerating to orbital velocity.

An onboard camera showed sparks around the upper stage engine as it was supposed to ignite. A display on Rocket Lab’s live launch webcast showed the rocket’s velocity decreasing, which suggested the vehicle’s upper stage was not generating any significant thrust.

A camera aboard Rocket Lab's Electron launcher captured this view of the upper stage engine moments after stage separation.

A few moments later, a mission director in Rocket Lab’s launch control room declared an “anomaly,” and the company’s webcast ended. Without enough speed to reach orbit, the upper stage and its payload—a radar remote sensing satellite for Capella Space—fell into the Pacific Ocean downrange Rocket Lab’s launch site, likely near the impact point of the rocket’s jettisoned first stage booster (Rocket Lab did not attempt to recover the first stage on this mission).

Rocket Lab said in a statement that its next mission, which was expected to launch before the end of this month, will be postponed while the company investigates Tuesday’s failure.

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