Today, December 15, 2023, at 04:05 UTC Rocket Lab successfully launched the “The Moon God Awakens” mission. The Electron rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, carrying the TSUKUYOMI 1 SAR satellite. This mission represents the return to flight of the US space company, three months after the failed 41st Electron launch.
02:43 minutes after liftoff the second stage separated from the booster, which had been expended. Nearly seven minutes later the Curie Kick Stage separated and at T+ 57:30 the payload was released at an altitude of 575 km.
The mission deployed in Low Earth Orbit the QPS-SAR-5 satellite, named TSUKUYOMI 1, for the Japanese Institute for Q-shu Pioneers of Space, Inc. (iQPS). iQPS is an Earth imaging company founded in 2005 by Tetsuo Yasaka and Akira Sakurai, Emeritus Professors at the Kyushu University, and by Kunihiro Funakoshi, a rocket developer for Mitsubishi.
The Japanese company is developing a constellation of 36 QPS-SAR small satellites, split in four orbits, to enable near-real-time Earth observation. Thanks to the SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) technology, the spacecraft enables the observation of the planet’s surface with any weather or light conditions.
Potentially, the QPS-SAR satellites will be able to provide high-quality observations of any location on Earth every 10 minutes. According to iQPS, the satellite has a resolution of less than one meter, weighthing only approximately 100 kg, far less than conventional imaging satellites.
The demonstration satellites, QPS-SAR-1 (Izanagi) and QPS-SAR-2 (Izanami) were launched in 2019 and 2021, on board a PSLV and a Falcon 9 rocket. Amateru 1 and 2 were supposed to be the first operational satellites, however, the Epsilon rocket failed during the launch, resulting in the loss of the payloads. The first operational QPS-SAR satellite became Amateru 3, launched on SpaceX’s Transporter 8 mission in June 2023.
The failure and a rapid investigation
On September 19, an Electron rocket lifted off from LC1, carrying a SAR satellite for Capella Space. After stage separation, the Rutherford Vacuum engine experienced an anomaly during ignition. Shortly after the failure, Rocket Lab announced the opening of an internal investigation, in collaboration with the FAA. The company conducted quick and efficient analyses that led to the identification of the issue in a short period. Already in October, the FAA granted the authorization to resume launches from New Zealand.
In the third quarter financial results update, Rocket Lab provided detailed information regarding the investigation. A series of sub-investigations, tests and image processing revealed that the cause of the anomaly was related to an electric arc that occurred within the power supply system providing high voltage to the Rutherford engine’s motor controllers. The electric arc was caused by a combination of unique conditions, including the Paschen Law phenomenon. To address the issue, corrective measures were implemented, including hardware modifications.