A very sad day for radar. In the early hours of a crisp September morning, a hush fell over the bustling atmosphere at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand as Rocket Lab’s Electron spacecraft prepared for liftoff. The launch, scheduled for 2:55 a.m. Eastern time, had already seen a brief 20-minute delay due to unpredictable space weather conditions.
As the countdown reached its climax, the Electron’s engines roared to life, and it soared into the heavens, a sleek vessel of hope and scientific ambition. For those observing, it appeared as if everything was going according to plan, with controllers announcing “nominal” status updates, assuring everyone that all was well.
However, optimism quickly turned to apprehension when, just after the crucial stage separation, the live video feed from the second stage mysteriously went dark. The silence was broken by a somber announcement from the launch director about 45 seconds later, “All stations, we have experienced an anomaly.” Rocket Lab, known for its transparency, soon decided to halt the webcast, leaving viewers in the dark, both literally and figuratively, about the unfolding drama.
In a concise statement issued after the failure, Rocket Lab acknowledged the mission’s tragic end. “Following lift-off from Launch Complex 1, the rocket successfully completed a first stage burn and stage separation as planned, before an issue was experienced at around T+ 2 minutes and 30 seconds into flight, resulting in the end of the mission,” the statement read. Unfortunately, no further details were provided regarding the nature of the issue.
The disappointment was palpable, not only for Rocket Lab but also for their mission partners at Capella Space. Peter Beck, the Chief Executive of Rocket Lab, took to social media to express his regret: “Tough day. My deepest apologies to our mission partners Capella Space. Team is already working on root cause. We’ll find it, fix it and be back on the pad quickly.”
This setback marked the third failure in just over three years for the Electron, with the previous two incidents involving problems with the upper stage. In July 2020, an Electron failed to reach orbit when the upper-stage engine unexpectedly shut down, attributed to a faulty electrical connection. Then, in May 2021, another Electron launch ended in failure as the upper-stage engine shut down moments after ignition due to igniter issues that corrupted signals used for the stage’s thrust vector control system.
This latest mishap raised serious concerns about the reliability of the Electron rocket and Rocket Lab’s ability to maintain their planned launch schedule. Rocket Lab had set ambitious goals, aiming to conduct 15 Electron missions that year, including suborbital flights of a rocket variant known as HASTE. This particular launch had been the ninth Electron mission of the year, marking the company as a leader among Western operators of small launch vehicles.
The payload onboard the ill-fated Electron was the second Acadia synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellite, developed by Capella Space. Just weeks prior, on August 23, the first Acadia satellite had successfully launched aboard an Electron, initiating a four-launch contract between Rocket Lab and Capella.
Payam Banazadeh, Chief Executive of Capella, had been hopeful about the future during a panel discussion at World Satellite Business Week on September 15, confirming that the first Acadia satellite was already in commercial operations. He emphasized that Capella was prepared to deploy more Acadia satellites in the coming quarters, collaborating closely with Rocket Lab.
These Acadia satellites represented a departure from the norm, being larger and more robust, with a mass of around 150 kilograms. Banazadeh explained that this shift was driven by the decreasing cost and growing availability of launch opportunities. “At some point it didn’t really make sense to be as small,” he remarked, highlighting the importance of data quality over satellite quantity for their targeted customers.
In the wake of the Electron failure, Rocket Lab made the difficult decision to postpone its next scheduled launch for Japanese SAR company iQPS, originally slated for later that month. Additionally, the company promised to provide revised financial guidance in the coming days, reflecting the impact of this unexpected setback.
The incident served as a poignant reminder of the inherent challenges and uncertainties of space exploration, where success and failure often hang in the balance of complex engineering, technical innovation, and the mysteries of the cosmos.