Electron launch vehicle. Credits: Rocket Lab/Brady Kenniston

Rocket Lab Aims To Quickly Return To Flight Before 2024

Rocket Lab officially received FAA's authorization to resume launches from Launch Complex 1, after Electron launch failure occured in September

On October 25, 2023, Rocket Lab officially announced that it received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization to resume launches from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Back in September, an anomaly during the launch of an Electron rocket resulted in the failure of the mission and the loss of the payload.

FAA investigation

The confirmation of the launch license came quite quickly compared to standard timelines. However, the investigation is not over and, as stated by Rocket Lab, the company continues to work with the FAA and is finalizing a meticulous review into the anomaly’s root cause. Also, a ground test campaign will be conducted to recreate the issue’s conditions.

“Our investigation team with FAA oversight has worked around the clock since the moment of the anomaly to uncover all possible root causes, replicate them in tests, and determine a path for corrective actions to avoid similar failure modes in the future.”

— Peter Beck, CEO at Rocket Lab

The recent updates haven’t publicly clarified the possible technical issue that caused the failure of the Electron’s second stage. Rocket Lab emphasized how the first stage worked nominally from the liftoff, until the stage separation, as it already appeared evident from the frames of the live stream.

This was the 41st Electron launch, and the anomaly occurred after a positive streak of 19 consecutive successes. The investigation is expected to be completed in the coming weeks and Rocket Lab is committed to returning to flight before the end of the year. Considering that after the previous launch failure, in May 2021, 70 days passed before the following liftoff, we can expect to see the launch of Skylark’s satellites in December.


The failed mission

On September 19, at 06:55 UTC the Electron rocket successfully lifted off from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, under the “We will never desert you” mission. A prophetic name by the way.

After a nominal liftoff and stage separation, at T+ 2:25 minutes, the Rutherford Vacuum engine experienced an anomaly during ignition. Several sparks could be seen coming out from above the nozzle.

The moment of Rutherford engine ignition failure after stage separation. Credits: Rocket Lab live
The moment of Rutherford engine ignition failure after stage separation. Credits: Rocket Lab live

The mission was carrying the second Acadia-class synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite, as part of Capella Space’s third-generation Earth-imaging LEO constellation. Previously, the mission “We Love The Nightlife” deployed the first Acadia satellite in August. Rocket Lab signed a total of 4 launches for the deployment of the new constellation.

To date, no info has been published about the economic impact of this failure. However, we can expect to learn more after the release of the company’s third-quarter financial results, on November 8.


The rocket

Electron is a 3D-printed small-lift rocket built and operated by the US company Rocket Lab. Electron has two stages, with the option to add Rocket Lab’s Photon Kick Stage. The rocket can carry up to 300 kg of payload into LEO orbit.

Rocket Lab's Electron rocket liftoff. Credits: Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket liftoff. Credits: Rocket Lab

The first stage is powered by 9 Rutherford engines that provide 190 kN of thrust at liftoff. The second stage is powered by a single Vacuum Rutherford. Electron uses electric motors and lithium batteries to power its fuel pumps.

Rocket Lab is also operating HASTE, a version of Electron, dedicated to suborbital flights for the testing of Hypersonic technologies. The company is developing Neutron, a medium-lift reusable rocket, expected to be launched in 2025.


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Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Aerospace engineering student at University of Padua, passionate of space and aerospace sector.

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