It was glass half full for Rocket Lab as its Electron booster went into space on its maiden flight, but failed to reach orbit. Today at 4:20 pm NZST (04:20 GMT), the unmanned rocket lifted off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand and achieved the official space altitude of 100 km (52) mi three minutes later. However, it failed to reach orbital velocity and plummeted back to earth somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
Billed as "the first orbital-class rocket launched from a private launch site in the world," Electron is designed to launch small satellites of less than 150 kg (330 lb) to reach sun-synchronous orbit at a cost of about US$4.9 million. It should do so at a rate of 50 launches per year, compared to the US average of 22 times per year and the international rate of 82 per year.
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Where other companies are looking at reusable boosters, Electron is designed to keep costs down by means of a composite construction, 3D-printed rocket components for the in-house designed Rutherford engine, and swapping turbo pumps for electric motors powered by lithium-ion batteries to feed propellants to the engines.
The reason for today's orbit failure is still unknown, but Rocket Lab says that the company's engineers in Los Angeles and Auckland, New Zealand will analyze 25,000 data channels from flight telemetry to isolate the fault and correct it. The Electron is slated to fly three more test flights this year, with the next launch aimed at determining the booster's maximum payload.
"It has been an incredible day and I'm immensely proud of our talented team," says Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab. "We're one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We've worked tirelessly to get to this point. We've developed everything in house, built the world's first private orbital launch range, and we've done it with a small team.
"It was a great flight. We had a great first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation. We didn't quite reach orbit and we'll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our program, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business."
Rocket lab says that is has already lined up paying customers for when it goes commercial, including NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express, and Spaceflight.
The video below shows today's launch attempt.
Source: Rocket Lab