Rocket Lab Successfully Completes Return-to-Flight Electron Launch – Spaceflight Now – Spaceflight Now

Update 12:05 a.m. EST: Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has successfully deployed the Tsukuyomi-1 satellite.

Rocket Lab launched its first flight of its Electron rocket since a failure on September 19. The 42nd mission for the small satellite launch vehicle launched from New Zealand on December 15 at approximately 1705 NZDT (0405 UTC or 11:05 p.m. EST).

The Electron rocket launched “The Moon God Awakens” mission from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, Pad B, on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. This was a special mission for the Japan-based Earth imaging company iQPS (Institute for Q-shu Pioneers of Space, Inc.). The Tsukuyomi-1 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite joins another iQPS satellite in orbit to capture high-resolution views of Earth as small as one square meter.

Eventually, it will be part of a 36-satellite constellation designed to monitor fixed points on Earth every 10 minutes. iQPS said it plans to deploy the full constellation by 2025 or later.

“We are deeply grateful to the Rocket Lab team for their efforts to organize the launch opportunity that perfectly matches our desired orbit,” iQPS CEO Shunsuke Onishi said in a statement. “In addition, we are very proud of our team, who work tirelessly day after day to meet this tight schedule.”

Rocket Lab Successfully Completes Return to Flight Electron Launch Spaceflight NowA Rocket Lab Electron rocket is ready for launch on December 15 from New Zealand. This return mission will be the 42nd launch of an Electron rocket to date and the tenth in 2023. Image: Rocket Lab

This mission marks the tenth flight of an Electron rocket in 2023, one mission above the previous Rocket Lab record of nine launches in 2022.

“We believe the market for the Electron product is very strong,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said during a conference call with investors in November. “Frequent launch capabilities, schedule flexibility and control over orbital deployment are what our customers are looking for, and that is what Electron has provided and will continue to provide in the new year.”

Of the 22 launches Rocket Lab has booked for 2024, nine of them will be recovery missions. The company said it will not attempt to recover the Electron’s first booster on this mission.

1702617984 743 Rocket Lab Successfully Completes Return to Flight Electron Launch Spaceflight NowThe mission patch for the 42nd Electron rocket flight “The Moon God Awakens”. Graphics: Rocket Lab

Return to the flight

This Electron mission is a pivotal moment for Rocket Lab after the company was forced to pause launches for most of the fourth quarter of 2023. It launched twice in the third quarter before the mission failed in September.

During the Electron launch on September 19, a second stage engine ignition problem occurred approximately two and a half minutes into the flight. In a third-quarter earnings presentation to investors, the company said the anomaly was caused by an arc in the power system that shorted out the battery packs that power the second stage.

“The most likely root cause of the arc was a unique and unusual combination of conditions, including: the phenomenon of Paschen’s law, in which the ability of arcs to form in partial vacuum is significantly exacerbated; an alternating voltage (AC) superimposed on the direct current high voltage supply; a low concentration of helium and nitrogen; and an imperceptible defect in the insulation of the high-voltage wiring harness,” the company said.

The conclusion came after a seven-week investigation conducted in coordination with the US Federal Aviation Administration.

“After more than 40 launches, Electron is a proven, mature design with an established manufacturing process. Therefore, we knew the error would be something complex and extremely rare that had never occurred before in testing or in flight,” Beck said in an October statement. “Our investigation team, under FAA supervision, has worked around the clock since the anomaly to uncover all possible root causes, reproduce them in tests, and identify a path for corrective action to avoid similar failure modes in the future.”

Beck said part of the solution to ensure “something like this never happens again” is to increase the accuracy of the second stage and seal the battery frame that contains the high-voltage connectors and devices, reducing it to about 0.5 to put PSI under pressure.

1702617986 147 Rocket Lab Successfully Completes Return to Flight Electron Launch Spaceflight NowA slide from Rocket Lab’s third quarter investor presentation. The infographic shows a timeline of the anomaly that caused the 41st Electron launch to fail. Graphics: Rocket Lab

“The best way to solve a problem, in my opinion, is to always eliminate the problem, and that’s exactly what we did,” Beck said. “Getting to the bottom of the problem and getting back to supporting our customers was the team’s top priority.”

“It’s been incredible to see the persistence and commitment over the last few weeks, not only in investigating the anomaly, but also in the work they’ve done in parallel to ensure we’re ready to go as soon as we get back to the pad .”