Rocket Lab flew its 20th Electron mission on Saturday morning, but the launch ran into a significant issue just after its second-stage engine ignited. The engine appeared to shut down just after the ignition, which is not what it’s supposed to do, and is likely the result of an automated emergency shutdown process that would trigger in case of a system failure. Rocket Lab confirmed that the issue happened shortly after the ignition of the second stage and resulted in the loss of the vehicle and its payload.
The company last encountered a mission failure in July 2020, when the vehicle and its payloads on Rocket Lab’s 13th Electron flight were lost after an engine failure that occurred during the second-stage burn. That issue similarly resulted from a triggered safety shutdown, meaning that while the rocket and its cargo didn’t explode, the spacecraft simply stopped operating, but didn’t reach its target orbit or release its payload.
This flight, called “Running Out of Toes,” was Rocket Lab’s third this year, and a paid, dedicated launch for customer BlackSky, meant to deliver an Earth observation satellite for that company to help power its global monitoring and intelligence platform. This mission profile also included a key test of Rocket Lab’s rocket reusability program, with a planned recovery of the first-stage booster used in the Electron vehicle that carried the satellite to space.
This was also the second time that Rocket Lab performed a rocket recovery, after picking one up post-launch back in November. The company implemented a lot of improvements for this second try, including upgrades to Electron itself, with a better thermal protection system and upgraded heat shield to protect the Rutherford engines that power the booster, which are designed to help the final reusable design keep those in good shape for future reuse post-recovery.
Rocket Lab issued a statement later on Saturday noting that the second stage “remained within the predicted launch corridor” after its safety shutdown and won’t pose any risk to the public or its teams. The company also noted that the first stage splashdown did occur as planned, and that the recovery team is on site in the Pacific Ocean to retrieve the booster, so that secondary aim of the mission appears to be on track for success, at least.
This anomaly will now result in an investigation in to the cause, which will be required before Rocket Lab returns to flight in order to ensure future missions don’t fall prey to the same issue.