A bad day in New Zealand: Rocket Lab's 13th mission ends in failure

'Pics or It Didn't Happen' won't be sending back any pics any time soon


Upstart rocketeers at Rocket Lab had a bad weekend as the thirteenth launch of its Electron rocket ended in failure.

The flight of the Electron on 4 July appeared to work at first, and the onboard cameras caught the first stage booster falling back to Earth. Viewers were then treated to the separation of the payload shroud, as planned, before things began to go a bit pear-shaped.

Acceleration appeared to slow at around the five to six-minute mark and the company abruptly stopped the feed shortly after. Fans were left hoping that hey, maybe it was just a telemetry funny.

Alas, it was not. Rocket Lab boss Peter Beck took to Twitter to confirm that the mission "Pics or It Didn't Happen" had indeed failed. As it transpired, the issue occurred "approximately four minutes into the flight" according to the company.

The mission had been brought forward (unusual for rockets) to dodge the New Zealand weather and represented the fastest turn-around for the company to date, following the successful "Don't Stop Me Now" launch on 13 June. Prior to the incident, Rocket Lab had hopes for achieving a monthly launch cadence for the rest of 2020 and into 2021, including the first missions planned from its Launch Complex 2 in the US. One, for NASA, is aiming for the Moon.

There were seven payloads being carried by the mission, including In-Space Missions' maiden satellite, Faraday-1. A demonstration nano-satellite, Faraday-1 had been planned to show-off a range of applications including RF spectrum monitoring, 360-degree optical video imaging and Internet of Things technology.

The UK-based company had also inked a €10m deal with the European Space Agency (ESA) for a second-generation fleet of Faraday satellites. Faraday-1b had been due for launch in the middle of 2021, but the company said: "We will now look to bring this forward" as it wrung its hands over the "devastating loss" of Faraday-1.

The primary payload on the mission was Canon's CE-SAT-IB, as well as five Planet SuperDove Earth observation satellites. The imaging nature of the payload gave rise to the "Pics or It Didn't Happen" name of the mission. There were no pics ... for it didn't happen.

The second stage of the Electron booster has been powered by a single Rutherford engine, a vacuum-tweaked version of the nine engines that lurk at the base of the first stage. Generating 22 kN of thrust, the second stage utilises batteries to power its electric turbopumps, normally jettisoning spent batteries and "hot swapping" to fresh ones as the mission proceeds. This time, however, the engine of the second stage appeared to lose thrust before Rocket Lab cut the feed.

The rocket remained within its launch corridor during the failure, and there was no harm to Rocket Lab's team or its launch site. Apologising to the company's customers, Beck said: "Today's anomaly is a reminder that space launch can be unforgiving, but we will identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible."

We'll leave the final word to Morgan Bailey, Rocket Lab's Head of Communications.

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