Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Rocket Lab Loses One

Rocket Lab's string of 20 consecutive successful launches ended Tuesday when the company's Electron rocket suffered "an anomaly" after first stage separation and failed to deliver a small commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite for customer Capella Space into orbit.  

It leaves Rocket Lab with a 90% success rate. 

The mission began with liftoff at 2:55 AM EDT from their Mahia Peninsula launch facility in New Zealand.  The launch was delayed nearly a half hour due to weather; not rain, but solar weather.  Everything appeared to go well through the first stage's BECO (booster engine cut off) and stage separation.

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.

Video screen capture of Rocket Lab's coverage showing streaks from the apparent sparks.  

“Tough day. My deepest apologies to our mission partners Capella Space,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, posted on social media. “Team is already working on root cause. We’ll find it, fix it and be back on the pad quickly.”

The new author at Ars Technica, Stephen Clark says Rocket Lab's 90% success rate is in the range of "not great; not terrible."  In the small sat launch business, their main competitors are Astra and Firefly but not only is Astra not launching, they're in financial trouble.  Virgin orbit was a competitor, but they declared bankruptcy and shut down.  Firefly doesn't have a large log of successes to compare to.  Rocket Lab's 90% success rate comes across pretty favorably in that market segment. 

The selling point of Rocket Lab and their Electron booster is that they're the sole (or main) payload and so get delivered to their desired orbit.  The 90% success rate, though, pales pretty badly compared to SpaceX's Falcon 9, which has gone over 230 consecutive successful launches.   Yes, customers on a SpaceX rideshare mission would have to go to an orbit that's not what they desire and either use their onboard maneuvering fuel to achieve the desired orbit or use one of the available intermediate stages to get there.  It just so happens that Rocket Lab makes one of these themselves, called the Photon.  It's how Rocket Lab got NASA's CAPSTONE satellite to the moon on one of their boosters.  

Here's the gotcha.  I have no idea how much Photon costs, but Clark reports:

A dedicated commercial launch on Rocket Lab's Electron runs about $7.5 million. According to SpaceX's website, it would charge less than $1 million to launch a 363-pound (165-kilogram) satellite comparable in mass to one of Capella's radar spacecraft.

My guess is that buying a Photon (or someone else's version) wouldn't use all of the $6.5 million difference between SpaceX rideshare and using the Electron.  

Which is not to distract from the fact that Rocket Lab seems to be a well-managed, solid company and is already pressing any agencies that can help to join in their attempt to understand this failure.  I view this as a temporary setback.


  1. Rocket Labs ain't gonna win 'em all. Goes with the territory - it *is* Rocket Science after all!
    They'll persevere.

    1. It's that perseverance, and their unique fuel pumps, that prevents me from selling my RKLB.

  2. Lots of sparklers is never a good thing - something is exposed to more heat than expected and is melting or ablating. Seen that before more than a few catastrophic failures.