Rocket Lab says that the failure of its Electron rocket to reach orbit was due to a ground equipment error and not from any fault with the launch vehicle. A two-month internal investigation by Rocket Lab overseen by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of telemetry from the failed May 25 launch attempt, called "It's a Test," in New Zealand relieved that the root cause of the flight's termination was a fault in a third-party contractor's equipment.

On May 25 the unmanned Electron 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 (62) mi three minutes later. However, after four minutes into the flight, at an altitude of 224 km (139 mi), contact was lost with the rocket and the range safety officer ordered the booster to self-destruct.

After analysis of 25,000 channels of telemetry data at Rocket Lab facilities in California and New Zealand combined with ground tests of equipment revealed that a data loss by a third-party contractor caused a data loss time out. The fault was in a key item of equipment that translates radio signals into data for the range safety officers. Due to a failure to enable forward error correction on this third-party device, received position data was extensively corrupted. However, data from Rocket Lab's own equipment was not affected.

Rocket Lab says that, with the fault isolated, steps have been taken to prevent a repetition of the incident. No major changes were required of the Electron rocket and the company has given the go-ahead for the assembly of four more launch vehicles. Meanwhile, a second Electron is being readied for shipment to New Zealand for the second "Still Testing" launch, the date of which has still to be conformed.

The FAA will review Rocket Lab's findings before giving final flight authorization.

"We have demonstrated Electron was following its nominal trajectory and was on course to reach orbit," says Peter Beck, Rocket Lab CEO. "While it was disappointing to see the flight terminated in essence due to an incorrect tick box. We can say we tested nearly everything, including the flight termination system. We were delighted with the amount of data we were able to collect during an exceptional first test launch.

"Rocket Lab's telemetry systems provided data verifying Electrons capabilities and providing us with high confidence ahead of our second test flight. The call to terminate a launch would be tough for anyone, and we appreciated the professionalism of the flight safety officials involved."

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. The video below provides highlights of the first Electron launch.

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