Rocket Lab launch streak goes up in smoke with 41st mission

Electron rocket was lost when reusable first stage separated early this morning

It's back to zero days without incident at Rocket Lab, whose 41st launch ended in failure this morning, breaking a streak that had been going since 2021.

It's not entirely clear what happened from the launch livestream nor a press release confirming the failure, but we know when it happened: around two and a half minutes into launch, as the reusable first stage of the Electron rocket separated from the payload-bearing second stage.

The video feed from the rocket froze followed by silence in the control room. "All stations, we have experienced some anomaly. Remain on station and we will investigate," a voice said on the intercom, adding that the team was moving to "action B" – its anomaly plan. 

Beyond that, it's unknown what went wrong in the early hours of this morning on New Zealand's Māhia Peninsula, only that the rocket's payload, belonging to San Francisco-based Capella Space, was lost.

The status of the rocket's first stage, which appeared from the feed and applause from mission control to have separated correctly, hasn't been mentioned. Rocket Labs told The Register it had nothing specific to add at this stage, though did mention there was no plan to recover the first stage.

The company said in its statement that it was working with the Federal Aviation Administration "and supporting agencies" to figure out what happened.

"The Electron rocket has previously delivered 171 satellites to orbit across 37 successful orbital missions. We will identify the issue swiftly and implement corrective actions and return to the pad shortly," Rocket Lab said.

Capella Space said of the payload: "Capella Space is disappointed by the loss of our Acadia-2 satellite and the 'We Will Never Desert You' mission, which ended prematurely part-way into today's launch by Rocket Lab. We are in close contact with the Rocket Lab team and expect further updates from them in due course. Despite this loss, Capella Space remains committed to launching further Acadia satellites, as planned, over the coming months."

The FCC said the mission experienced a "mishap" following stage separation after launch, adding: "There are no reports of public injuries or public property damage. All debris is contained within the designated hazard area. The FAA will oversee the Rocket Lab investigation of the mishap and provide final approval of the root causes and corrective actions identified by the company."

37 out of 41 ain't bad

While we've been staring goggle-eyed at the conflagrations coming out of Elon Musk's SpaceX, Rocket Lab has been quietly becoming arguably the second biggest player in the private space industry with a minimum of explosive fanfare.

Rocket Lab's biggest ambition may be its two previous attempts to catch the first stage of a returning Electron rocket with a helicopter, both of which failed – though the second was canceled because of lost rocket telemetry that made a catch attempt unsafe.

Other than that, Rocket Lab's other launches have gone pretty well with the exception of some faulty electronics and a previous second-stage engine failure to complement whatever is discovered in today's incident.

Had today's launch succeeded, Rocket Lab would have sent the second of Capella Space's Acadia synthetic aperture radar satellites to orbit. SAR radars like Acadia are able to penetrate clouds and take photographs in darkness, making them superior for Earth observation. 

With the failure of Rocket Lab's 41st mission, and Capella's next few Acadia sats set to launch on Electron rockets, it's not clear when its planned 30-satellite constellation will be able to continue deployment. Capella didn't immediately respond to questions. ®

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