Electron launch vehicle. Credits: Rocket Lab/Brady Kenniston

Rocket Lab: Latest Updates Ahead of Return to Flight

Rocket Lab and its CEO, Peter Beck, recently shared important updates on the Electron's failure investigation, Neutron's development and future plans

Recently, Rocket Lab USA shared important updates regarding the investigation on the failed Electron launch and the future of the company’s projects, such as the Neutron rocket. On November 8, the American company released the third quarter 2023 financial results update.

Q3 results and future plans

Rocket Lab had some important results in Q3, conducting two launches and achieving back-to-back recovery missions. The company deployed satellites for customers such as NASA, SFL, Spire, and Capella Space. It is important to underline that the production of space systems continue to be the most substantial part of Rocket Lab’s business. The company has seen a 9% increase in revenue compared to Q2, with a significant portion—$46 million out of 68—coming from space systems.

The 40th Electron launch marked significant milestones for Rocket Lab’s reusability program, with achievements like an ocean splashdown and the successful flight of a previously-flown Rutherford engine. However, the 41st Electron launch experienced an anomaly, prompting an extensive investigation.

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

Back in October, Rocket Lab received the FAA authorization to resume launch from LC-1 in New Zealand. Now the company plans to resume Electron launches with a dedicated mission for iQPS. The launch window starts on November 28th, 2023, and extends into December.

Next year the company aims at launching 22 missions, between Electron and HASTE launches. Twelve more than in 2023.


The investigation

In the investigation of the anomaly during the 41st Electron launch, Rocket Lab utilized over 12,000 data channels and conducted more than 200 sub-investigations. Optical triangulation and image processing were employed to pinpoint the anomaly’s location. Should be mentioned that Rocket Lab provided important and detailed information with considerable transparency.

Extensive analysis revealed that the cause of the anomaly was an electrical arc within the power supply system providing high voltage to the Rutherford engine’s motor controllers. The arc resulted in a shorting of the battery packs powering the launch vehicle’s second stage.

Timeline of the anomaly. Credits: Rocket Lab
Timeline of the anomaly. Credits: Rocket Lab Q3 results presentation

Rocket Lab identified unique conditions contributing to the arc, including the Paschen Law phenomenon, AC/DC high voltage supply interaction, a small concentration of helium and nitrogen, and an imperceptible fault in the insulation of the high voltage loom.

During an interview for NASASpaceFlight Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, explained how challenging it was to analyze the videos to understand the origin of the failure: “The whole event was 1.6 seconds. If you go back to the live stream, when the arc occurred, you can see a green glow for a small amount of time. The team did an amazing job, they recreated all the light conditions to reproduce the kind of shadows produced on the nozzle. Also, the trajectory of the sparks matches with the light source. We were able to determine the exact location of the failure point.”

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

To address the issue, corrective measures were implemented. These included a hardware modification to fully enclose and pressurize the power supply system, reducing susceptibility to the Paschen Curve.


Neutron updates

The Q3 results presentation also provided the latest achievement for the future reusable Neutron rocket. The teams completed the Stage 2 structural and cryogenic test campaign, which included hydrostatic, cryogenic, and leakage test sequences. Following the successful tank test, production of the next Neutron parts, including tanks, first stage fixed fairing, and other critical components, is underway. The next Neutron second stage tank test is scheduled for the first half of 2024.

Neutron' Stage 2 structural and cryogenic test campaign. Credits: Rocket Lab
Neutron’ Stage 2 structural and cryogenic test campaign. Credits: Rocket Lab

Additionally, Rocket Lab achieved a critical milestone with Archimedes engine by executing a Methane/LOX combustion test. Full-scale Archimedes hardware and assemblies are being produced for upcoming development and propulsion tests.


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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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