Rocket Lab pinpoints cause of last month's booster failure

Rocket Lab pinpoints cause of last month's booster failure
Rocket Lab's Electron booster during an earlier launch
Rocket Lab's Electron booster during an earlier launch
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Rocket Lab's Electron booster during an earlier launch
Rocket Lab's Electron booster during an earlier launch

Space startup Rocket Lab experienced a notable hiccup in early July, when one of its Electron boosters was lost on its way to orbit, along with the seven satellites onboard. The company now claims to have pinpointed the source of the problem, and has gained regulatory approval to return to the launchpad later this month.

Following a series of early mishaps, it has been relatively smooth sailing for Rocket Lab since first reaching orbit in January of 2018. It has gone on to deliver satellites to orbit for NASA, DARPA and the US Air Force, and even started to explore methods of recycling its rockets after launch .

So when the Electron booster failed several minutes into the second-stage burn during last month’s “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen” mission, it marked a significant setback for the relatively young company. A joint investigation into the cause of the failure carried out with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has, however, quickly zeroed in on the issue, which caused the engine to perform a safe shutdown and bring the mission to an end.

This controlled shutdown actually enabled Rocket Lab to continue collecting telemetry from the vehicle, with the investigation team since reviewing more than 25,000 channels of data. This revealed a “single anomalous electrical connection” as the issue, which remained secure throughout pre-flight testing but became “intermittently secure” during flight.

As a result of this, the electrical component endured additional heating and thermal expansion, liquefying some of the surrounding components and causing the electrical system to disconnect. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck says this wasn’t an issue the team had observed before in any of its 12 Electron launches.

“The issue occurred under incredibly specific and unique circumstances, causing the connection to fail in a way that we wouldn’t detect with standard testing,” says Beck. “Our team has now reliably replicated the issue in test and identified that it can be mitigated through additional testing and procedures.”

Rocket Lab says that corrective measures are now underway and the FAA has given it the all-clear to get back to business. It has scheduled a launch for later this month from its complex on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula, with further details on the customer and launch window to be revealed in the coming days.

“It’s a testament to Electron’s track record of reliability that the FAA has approved us for return to flight already,” says Beck. “Electron was the 4th most frequently launched rocket in the world last year and prior to the anomaly we had deployed 53 customer payloads to orbit without fail. Returning to the pad with an even more reliable vehicle for our mission partners is our top priority.”

Source: Rocket Lab

"liquefying some of the surrounding components" -- so it got hot enough to melt part of the rest of the system? Sounds a little like the old nuclear-industry use of the term "energetic disassembly" to mean things blowing up.

Glad to hear they can fix it, though. And good on them that they could perform a shutdown even with partly-molten equipment.
Our phrase in Industrial Lighting is "non-passive failure".