Rocket Lab suffers failure on Electron’s 20th mission

Rocket Lab conducted its twentieth launch of an Electron rocket, named “Running Out of Toes,”… The post Rocket Lab suffers failure on Electron’s 20th mission appeared first on

Rocket Lab suffers failure on Electron’s 20th mission

Rocket Lab conducted its twentieth launch of an Electron rocket, named “Running Out of Toes,” carrying two Earth-observation satellites for BlackSky’s global monitoring constellation. The mission also included an attempt to recover an Electron first stage for the second time after a soft splashdown in the Māhia Recovery Zone in the Pacific Ocean.

This fligh was the first of four dedicated missions scheduled for this year for BlackSky, a real-time geospatial intelligence and global monitoring services company, working in tandem with Spaceflight Inc providing mission management and payload integration services. Liftoff occurred at 11:11 UTC from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1A on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand after just over an hour of delays due to upper level winds.

The mission appeared nominal during first stage flight. However, shortly after stage separation, the second stage briefly ignited and then shut down almost immediately. The stage and payloads were well short of orbital velocity at this point in the mission.

Electron Recovery

This mission was the first Electron launch to sport reused components. Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab, said that the Electron booster for this mission would be reusing the propellant press systems from the “Return to Sender” mission, which were recovered and requalified before integration for “Running Out of Toes.”

In a call with reporters, Beck said that the condition of the first Electron booster recovered last year “was remarkable,” further elaborating that they’ve introduced multiple upgrades to the booster for this second attempt, including upgraded thermal protection systems in high-temperature areas.

Electron’s first stage being recovered after the “Return to Sender” mission in November 2020 – via Rocket Lab

The external skin of the stage “looked like new” according to Beck, retiring an initial concern about the rocket’s potential for reuse. The most challenging aspect of mission assurance for booster reuse is the vehicle’s avionics, which would ideally be protected from saltwater intrusion by mid-air recovery instead of a splashdown.

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  • The “Running Out of Toes” mission would only attempt a post-splashdown recovery, as the company incrementally approaches operational mid-air recoveries on future missions.

    “Really what we’re trying to do here is get into a bit of a cadence with our reusability missions and work through some logistics.”

    The second recovery mission would further prove the effectiveness of Electron’s reaction control and parachute systems by hopefully repeating the success of the first recovery. It sports a strengthened thermal protection system with an upgraded heat shield using stainless steel to protect the nine Rutherford engines. It also introduces ORCA (Ocean Recovery Capture Apparatus), a strongback especially designed for Electron recovery operations in the Pacific Ocean.

    Just like the “Return to Sender” mission, Electron’s first stage would continue to coast to its apogee (highest altitude) just after stage separation. During the coast period, the booster reorients itself to prepare for re-entry using its onboard reaction control systems (RCS).

    Diagram showing the mission profile for “Running Out of Toes” – via Rocket Lab

    The first stage reorients so that the engine section faces towards the direction of travel, allowing reentry heating to be absorbed by the heat shield. This evolved heat shield will allow the booster to survive heats up to 2400°C while travelling about eight times the speed of sound.

    As Electron slows down and decelerates to less than Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound), a drogue parachute deploys to slow the booster and allow the stage to stabilize as it descends. It’s followed by the deployment of the large main parachute to slow down the stage even further for a soft-water landing, followed by recovery using ORCA.

    The success of the recovery operations would give the teams a boost of confidence to standardize Electron’s first stages, enabling boosters to be swapped if the manifest changes, which will provide further flexibility to the customers. Beck is confident in Rocket Lab’s reusability progress, saying, “We are kind of more bullish on this than ever before. I mean, there is just nothing like getting a rocket back and putting it in the factory.”

    “Production continues to improve but, ultimately, if we can get the stage back [we can] top it off with propellant and charge the batteries” to go launch again, which will support an increased cadence for Electron.


    This was the second mission for BlackSky with Rocket Lab in 2021, after a single BlackSky satellite was one of the payloads on the successful “They Go Up So Fast” mission in March.

    The five dedicated BlackSky missions scheduled for this year are crucial for an accelerated deployment of the constellation of Gen-2, high-revisit, high-resolution imaging satellites.

    The two BlackSky satellites undergoing pre-launch processing – via Rocket Lab

    In 2023, BlackSky expects to begin deploying the recently announced Gen-3 satellites, which are intended to have 50 cm resolution and short-wave infrared (SWIR) for low light and night-time imaging capabilities, ultimately moving towards the completion of its projected 30-spacecraft constellation in a sun-synchronous orbit.

    “BlackSky is expanding and scaling through a regular cadence of launches so we can consistently increase capacity to deliver first-to-know insights for our customers,” said Brian E. O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky. “Our established practice of rapid deployments and advanced commissioning process ensures customers can trust and rely on our network for access to real-time global intelligence.”

    With the expansion of their constellation, it will strengthen its ability to offer timely and relevant information on the services they provide, especially the company’s geospatial intelligence solutions, which deliver analytics and insights for multiple government agencies and supply chains.

    Mission and Launch Timeline

    The integrated teams of Rocket Lab and Spaceflight Inc completed mission integration on 5 May, followed by a successful Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) of Electron — a routine procedure before missions where the launch team takes the rocket, ground systems, and themselves through an entire countdown up to but not including engine ignition. This includes fully fueling the rocket with RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen.

    For launch operations, the countdown began at T-4 hours, 06:00 UTC on 15 May when the road to the launch site was closed and the Electron rocket was raised vertical at Launch Complex 1A. Shortly after, teams started the fueling process.

    At T-2 hours 30 minutes, teams evacuated the area via helicopter. Safety zones became active for designated marine space at T-2 hours to launch, with airspace closures following at T-30 minutes.

    An initial launch target of 10:08 UTC was delayed due to high upper level winds above the launch site. The countdown was recycled for another target at 11:11 UTC as winds decreased.

    Eighteen minutes before launch, a Go/No-Go poll was conducted to begin the launch auto sequence, where the Electron’s on-board computers take over the countdown.

    Two seconds before liftoff, the nine Rutherford engines on Electron’s first stage ignited and reached full thrust almost instantly due to their electric-driven pumps.

    The “Running Out of Toes” mission will also mark the 200th Rutherford rocket engine to fly to space – via Rocket Lab

    The Electron rocket then lifted off the pad, performing a pitch and roll maneuver to place itself onto the correct heading to reach the mission’s intended 50 degree inclination orbit.

    At two minutes and 30 seconds into the flight, all nine Rutherford engines shut down and Electron’s first stage separated with the help of pneumatic pushers. This was to be followed seconds later by the ignition of the vacuum optimized Rutherford engine on Electron’s second stage.

    Live video from cameras on board the second stage appeared to show an on time ignition. However, those same cameras showed the engine shut down almost immediately afterwards, suggesting an abort shortly after staging.

    Electron’s first stage would coast up to its apogee and begin to reorient for reentry ahead of its expected soft water landing and recovery. It is likely, though not confirmed, that stage one recovery efforts should not be affected by the failure during stage two flight.

    The payload fairings, which protect the satellite from aerodynamic forces and heating during flight through the dense lower atmosphere, were to then separate and expose the payload to the vacuum of space just prior to three minutes into the flight.

    At eight minutes and 45 seconds after liftoff, the second stage engine was to shut down as the vehicle entered a preliminary orbit. The kick stage carrying the two satellites would then separate and begin a long coast phase.

    After a 50 minute long coast phase, the kick stage would ignite its engine for a two minute and 43 second burn to finalize the orbit for payload deployment.

    The two BlackSky satellites would have been deployed one hour after liftoff. The kick stage would then have performed a deorbit maneuver, bringing the mission to a close.

    Future Recovery Milestones and Launches from the US

    Building on the progress of two recovery missions, Beck says that Rocket Lab will conduct a third splashdown recovery mission before the end of the year. It will feature a “block upgrade” to Electron, including an “improved decelerator.” The upgrades will focus solely on enabling recovery, with no vehicle performance upgrades.

    Beck says Rocket Lab will continue splashdowns until “they are ready to go” with mid-air recovery using a helicopter. Once mid-air recovery operations begin, post-splashdown recovery will remain a contingency plan in the event that a catch attempt fails.

    Speaking about Rocket Lab’s upcoming Neutron rocket, Beck says that the teams will learn from reverse engineering Electron for recovery and that the lessons learned will be applied to the reusability of Neutron. Beck says that Rocket Lab plans to build one Neutron rocket a year and operate a fleet of four boosters, thanks to reusability. This will enable the company to achieve a high launch cadence and a lower launch cost.

    Beck also talked about Rocket Lab’s progress to begin launches from Launch Complex 2 in Virginia. He said that Rocket Lab is still working to have an autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) certified before it can begin launches the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

    Beck said this is “taking a lot longer than we all expected, but keeping an eye on the longer-term prize (of AFTS at Wallops’ range).” 

    An autonomous flight termination system (AFTS), as the name suggests, is a GPS-guided system designed to destroy the rocket automatically if it veers off trajectory during its flight. Rocket Lab is one of only two companies to fly with the autonomous system, with the other being SpaceX.

    AFTS is crucial to increasing the launch frequency since it reduces the turnaround time between missions and provides greater schedule control by eliminating reliance on ground assets and human flight termination operators.

    (Lead photo via Rocket Lab)

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    China succeeds on country’s first Mars landing attempt with Tianwen-1

    China has become only the second nation to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars on… The post China succeeds on country’s first Mars landing attempt with Tianwen-1 appeared first on

    China succeeds on country’s first Mars landing attempt with Tianwen-1

    China has become only the second nation to successfully land a spacecraft on Mars on Friday, joining the United States. Tianwen-1, China’s first mission to the Red Planet, launched in the middle of last year, sharing the particularly busy July 2020 Martian launch window with NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, including the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter, and the United Arab Emirates’ Al Amal orbiter.

    Tianwen-1’s orbiter section successfully separated from it’s lander section, which then successfully landed on Mars’ Utopia Planitia, carrying with it a small rover called Zhurong. Landing occurred at 23:11 UTC.

    The spacecraft launched from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the southern Chinese island of Hainan aboard the fifth flight of the country’s Long March 5 heavy lift rocket on 23 July 2020. As well as marking the first time the Long March 5 had launched a payload beyond Earth orbit, the launch of Tianwen-1 also marked China’s first mission to Mars.

    Tianwen-1 launching aboard the fifth flight of China’s Long March 5 rocket on July 23 2020 – via CNSA

    Despite being the county’s first interplanetary mission, it is rather complex, with the approximately five ton probe consisting of three separate spacecraft, an orbiter, lander and rover.

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  • These three spacecraft launched as one, with the lander/rover section of the spacecraft incapsulated in a small capsule, intended to allow it to pierce through the Martian atmosphere. The three spacecraft have been operating as one in Martian orbit since Tianwen-1 arrived on 10 February.

    The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has been reluctant to share much information of the timeline of the entry, descent and landing procedures, but a rough outline of how Tainwen-1’s landing played out is known.

    Seven minutes of terror

    Those who have worked on spacecraft that have attempted, successfully or not, to land on the Red Planet, have nicknamed the time in which the spacecraft enters the atmosphere, descends to the surface, and touches down, as the “seven minutes of terror”, mainly because of the complexity of the approximately seven minute journey from the top of the Martian atmosphere to the surface.

    Artist’s impression of the three spacecraft China will send to Mars – via Nature Astronomy/CNSA

    The first order of business for Tianwen-1 occurred approximately five hours prior to landing, when the orbiter, still connected to the capsule containing the lander and rover, ignited it’s engines to place it in on a trajectory that would see it intersect with the Martian atmosphere. Shortly afterward, the orbiter separated from the lander/rover capsule, and re-ignited it’s engines to place it back into a safe Martian orbit. This maneuver placed the lander and rover on a course to enter the Martian atmosphere within five hours.

    This descent strategy, temporarily de-orbiting the Tianwen-1 orbiter, avoids the need for the entry capsule to have its own orbital maneuvering system, and is not dissimilar to the strategy used by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft to drop an atmospheric probe into Jupiter in 1995.

    The main entry, descent and landing sequence began at around 23:04 UTC, around seven and a half minutes prior to the planned landing time, when the lander and rover hit the Martian atmosphere, travelling at around 4,800 meters per second, protected by a heatshield to keep the two vehicles safe from entry heating.

    Once the spacecraft came within four kilometers of the Martian surface, the capsule, still encapsulating both the lander and rover, deployed a parachute to begin slowing the spacecraft as it barreled towards the surface. Shortly afterward, at around 23:06 UTC, the heatshield that had protected the lander during atmospheric entry was jettisoned and fell to the Martian surface.

    The jettisoning of the heatshield allowed the lander and rover to separate from the landing capsule and parachute, which is occurred when the spacecraft was around 1,500 meters above the Martian surface. At around 100 meters above the surface, the lander ignited its engines and slowed down the spacecraft into a hover above Utopia Planitia, allowing it to begin its final descent to the surface.

    Diagram outlining Tianwen-1’s entry, descent and landing sequence – via CNSA

    A suite of cameras and LIDAR (light detecting and ranging) equipment were used to navigate the spacecraft to touch down.  The lander and rover touched down on the Martian surface at 23:11 UTC, brining an end to China’s “seven minutes of terror.”

    Surface operations

    Now that the lander has touched down in Utopia Planitia, the spacecraft will begin a planned 90 Sols (Martian days) of surface operations, conducting geology, minerology and geophysical investigations, among others.

    The rover, named Zhurong, will be kept on top of the lander, in similar fashion to China’s Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 lunar landers, which both carried a small rover atop them during the landing sequence of their missions. To allow for Zhurong to safely make it’s way onto the Martian surface, a ramp will remotely unfold, allowing the rover to drive down to the surface.

    To facilitate its 90 Sol scientific mission, Zhurong is equipped with over six scientific instruments, including a subsurface radar that will allow the rover to peer over 100 meters below the Martian surface, a spectrograph to gain data about the chemical composition of Mar’s surface, and a device provided by the French Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP). The device is a calibration target, a duplicate of one IRAP provided NASA’s Curiosity rover. The agency will compare the dataset from the Zhurong calibration target with the dataset from the Curiosity calibration target.

    The landing site, Utopia Planitia, is also very significant in terms of exploration of the Red Planet. On 3 September 1976, NASA’s Viking 2 spacecraft touched down in the region, marking the second ever landing on Mars. Viking 2’s scientific mission lasted nearly four years until its batteries failed and contact was lost in April 1980.

    Mock-up of the Zhurong rover in March 2021 – via AFP

    A return to Utopia Planitia is significant because Viking 2’s scientific mission uncovered interesting results during its analysis of the soil in the region during it’s stay on the planet. Viking 2 carried several biological experiments to aid in the search for life on Mars, and during one experiment, known as a Labeled Release (LR) experiment, Viking 2 injected a soil sample with a solution manufactured to influence any metabolism with micro-organisms that could be present within the soil.

    When Viking 2 performed the LR experiment, it returned results indicative that their were micro-organisms within the soil sample the spacecraft had collected from the surface. In the years since Viking 2, several theories have been thought of to provide a non-biological explanation for what Viking 2 could have found within the soil in Utopia Planitia, although many hope that the first return to the Planitia since Viking 2 hopes to definitively answer some of these 40 year old questions.

    Like all Mars landing attempts, a lot needed to go right for the Tianwen-1 lander to safely touchdown in Utopia Planitia on Friday. The successful landing marks a breakthrough, not only for the growing space agency, but also for the wider space community.

    The successful landing of Tianwen-1’s lander marks the first time an agency will have been able to safely land a spacecraft on the Martian surface on their first mission to the planet, an incredibly difficult and noteworthy achievement.

    (Lead render of orbiter/capsule separation via Mack Crawford for NSF)

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