6 Jul 2020

Rocket Lab will be 'working hard' to find answers on failed mission

2:56 pm on 6 July 2020

Rocket Lab won't be launching another mission until they know what caused the rocket to fail yesterday.

The rocket that will attempt to launch the DARPA R3D2 satellite.

A Rocket Lab rocket (file photo) Photo: Supplied / Rocket Lab

The ground crew lost connection with the rocket, which was carrying seven satellites, a few minutes after take off from Mahia Peninsula. The company was launching satellites from Japan, the US and the UK a day earlier than planned, to avoid bad weather due later this week.

Company founder Peter Beck told Midday Report the launch vehicle had tens of thousands of sensors providing data which had to be sifted through thoroughly.

"We'll be making sure we really understand the root cause and put any mitigations in place before we go and fly again, he said. How long that would take depended on the complexity the problem, he said.

"It certainly hurts our pride, that's for sure, but there's not a rocket flying that hasn't experienced failure somewhere along its life and to be fair we've defied the industry standard to date.

"It's largely unheard of to have a vehicle with so many successful flights especially early in its operational service.

"The payloads we fly are very valuable and our customers rely on us to deliver those so we have a very low tolerance for risk."

Rocket Lab's Peter Beck.

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck Photo: Supplied / Rocket Lab

Professor Richard Easther, Head of the Department of Physics at the University of Auckland, told Morning Report said there was very little margin for error in rocket launches.

"It appears that everything was working well until about half way through the second stage burn. It doesn't appear that the rocket completely exploded.

"All we know is that the engine stopped and that the rocket didn't make it into orbit.

"A rocket by definition is operating very close to the performance envelope. Every possible kilogram that can be saved is being saved.

"What that means is there's very little margin for error. It's not like a plane, that can lose an engine and keep flying - it either works or it doesn't."

The New Zealand-founded company is working closely with the US Federal Aviation Administration to find out why the launched failed.

"They will be very keen to get back into space as quickly as possible - but they'll also be keen to make sure that they can fully explain what happened to their customers and to put it right," Easther said.

"Because people do expect the occasional failure, the key thing is that RocketLab will have prepared for this eventuality and they'll be working very hard to maintain their credibility."

Rocket Lab is the clear leader in its field, but dozens of other firms around the world are trying to enter the niche market of carrying out small, relatively frequent launches.

Though its first launch didn't make it all the way to orbit, the subsequent ones did. "I think they're somewhat ahead of the numbers," he said

Beck has apologised to the satellite owners.

Easther said companies launching satellites into space see it as something experimental or take out insurance, he said.

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