What went wrong: Rocket Lab completes failed mission review, lines up next launch

Rocket Lab says it has wrapped up a review of its failed May 15 “Running out of Toes” mission – with the blame pinned on the Electron rocket’s second-stage ignition system.

The Kiwi-American company says its next rocket will be on the launchpad at Mahia by the end of this month.

It did not immediately detail the payload, but earlier CEO Peter Beck said Rocket Lab has a series of five launches lined up for Earth-observation firm BlackSky (the failed May 15 mission was an attempt to launch two satellites for BlackSky’s global-monitoring network, which keeps tabs on everything from global shipping to whether camps in the Mid-East desert move location overnight).

On May 24, Rocket Lab quietly delayed its US$4.1 billion Nasdaq listing by three months to the September quarter. It will now have the opportunity to get one or more successful launches under its belt before its Wall Street debut.

The May 15 anomaly occurred after 17 successful orbital flights of the Electron launch vehicle which has deployed more than 100 satellites to orbit since 2018, Rocket Lab said in a statement.

It was the company’s third failure across 20 launches, including one test launch.

“Immediately following the anomaly, Rocket Lab launched a rigorous internal review, assembling its investigation team with oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The investigation team scoured thousands of channels of telemetry and systems data from the flight and worked systematically through an extensive fault tree analysis to determine the cause of the failure,” Rocket Lab said.

The review concluded that an issue occurred within the second stage engine igniter system almost three minutes and 20 seconds into the flight, Rocket Lab said in a statement this morning.

“This induced a corruption of signals within the engine computer that caused the Rutherford engine’s thrust vector control (TVC) to deviate outside nominal parameters and resulted in the engine computer commanding zero pump speed, shutting down the engine.”

The igniter fault resulted from a previously undetectable failure mode within the ignition system that occurs under a unique set of environmental pressures and conditions, Rocket Lab said.

“The issue was not evident during extensive pre-flight testing for this mission, including more than 400 seconds of burn for this particular engine, more than 1500 Rutherford engine hot fires to date, and 17 successful orbital launches.”

Rocket Lab has since been able to reliably replicate the issue in testing and has implemented redundancies in the ignition system to prevent any future reoccurrence, including modifications to the igniter’s design and manufacture, the statement said.

“The anomaly review confirmed that Electron’s first stage performed flawlessly during the mission and did not contribute to the flight issue. As a result, Rocket Lab was able to conduct a successful reentry, ocean splashdown and recovery of the first stage as planned, marking a major milestone in the company’s program to make Electron a reusable launch vehicle.”

The FAA and the NZ Space Agency earlier confirmed Rocket Lab retains its licence to launch.

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