Rocket Lab successfully completes return-to-flight Electron launch

Update 12:05 a.m. EST: Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket successfully deployed the Tsukuyomi-1 satellite.

Rocket Lab launched its first flight of its Electron rocket since a failure on Sept. 19. The 42nd mission for the small-satellite launcher lifted off on Dec. 15 from New Zealand during at about 1705 NZDT (0405 UTC or 11:05 p.m. EST).

The Electron rocket launched the “The Moon God Awakens” mission from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, Pad B, on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. This was a dedicated mission for Japan-based Earth imaging company iQPS (Institute for Q-shu Pioneers of Space, Inc.). The Tsukuyomi-1 synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellite joins another iQPS satellite on orbit to capture high-resolution views of Earth as closely as a 1 meter-square view.

Eventually, it will be part of a 36-satellite constellation designed to monitor fixed points on Earth every 10 minutes. iQPS said it aims to have its full constellation deployed by 2025 or later.

“We are deeply grateful to the Rocket Lab team for their efforts in arranging the launch opportunity that aligns perfectly with our desired orbit,” said iQPS CEO Shunsuke Onishi in a statement. “Additionally, we take great pride in our team, working tirelessly day by day to accommodate this tight timeline.”

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket stands ready to launch on Dec. 15 from New Zealand. This return to flight mission will be the 42nd launch of an Electron rocket to date and the tenth in 2023. Image: Rocket Lab

This mission marks the tenth flight of an Electron rocket in 2023, which puts it one mission ahead of the prior Rocket Lab record of nine launches set in 2022.

“We see the market for the Electron product being very strong in the manifest,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck during an investor earnings call in November. “Frequent launch opportunities, flexibility over schedule and control over orbital deployment are what our customers are looking for and that’s what Electron has been providing and will continue to provide in the new year.”

Among the 22 launches Rocket Lab has booked for 2024, nine of them will be recovery missions. The company said it will not attempt to recover the Electron’s first stage booster on this mission.

The mission patch for the 42nd Electron rocket flight, “The Moon God Awakens.” Graphic: Rocket Lab

Return to flight

This Electron mission is a key moment for Rocket Lab after the company was forced to pause launches for most of the fourth quarter of 2023. It launched two times in Q3 before its failed mission in September.

During the Sept. 19 Electron launch, an issue occurred at second stage engine ignition, about two-and-a-half minutes into flight. In a Q3 earnings presentation to investors the company stated that the anomaly was casued by an electrical arc inside the power supply system, which shorted out the battery packs that provide power for the second stage.

“The most probable root cause of the arc was a unique and unusual interaction of conditions including: the phenomenon of the Paschen Law, where the ability of electrical arcs to form is greatly exacerbated in partial vacuum; a superimposed alternating current (AC) over the direct current (DC) high voltage supply; a small concentration of helium and nitrogen; and an imperceptible fault in the insulation of the high voltage loom,” the company stated.

The conclusion came after a seven-week investigation which was conducted in coordination with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

“After more than 40 launches, Electron is a proven, mature design with a well-established manufacturing process behind it, so we knew the fault was going to be something complex and extremely rare that hasn’t presented in testing or flight before,” Beck said in an October statement. “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 test, and determine a path for corrective actions to avoid similar failure modes in future.”

Beck said part of the solution to help ensure that “this never happens again” came through increasing the fidelity of the second stage and sealing the battery frame that contains the high-voltage connections and equipment as well as pressurizing it to roughly 0.5 PSI.

A slide from Rocket Lab’s third quarter investor presentation. The infographic depicts a timeline of the anomaly that caused the 41st Electron launch to end in failure. Graphic: Rocket Lab

“The best way to solve a problem, in my opinion, is to always eliminate the problem and that’s what we’ve done,” Beck said. “Getting to the bottom of the issue and back to the pad for our customers has been the team’s number one priority.”

“It’s been incredible to witness the perseverance, dedication over these past few weeks, not only on the anomaly investigation, but in the work that they’ve completed in parallel to make sure we’re good to go as soon as we get back to the pad.”