Telemetry glitch kept first Electron rocket from reaching orbit

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LOGAN, Utah — Rocket Lab blamed the failure of its first Electron rocket to reach orbit on a telemetry glitch in ground equipment that can be easily corrected, keeping the company on track to begin commercial launches by the end of this year.

In a statement released late Aug. 6, the U.S.-New Zealand company said its Electron rocket was flying as planned on its May 25 inaugural launch when a dropout of telemetry from the vehicle required range safety officials to terminate the flight four minutes after liftoff, at an altitude of 224 kilometers.

The company said that a third-party contractor supporting the launch misconfigured ground equipment that translated radio signals from the rocket into data used by range safety officials. That caused “extensive corruption of received position data,” resulting in the data loss that led safety officials to trigger the rocket’s flight termination system.

“It’s a very, very easy thing to fix. You literally tick a box in some software,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, in an Aug. 6 interview during the 31st Annual Conference on Small Satellites here. “It’s more about working with our contractors to ensure that we have better oversight of their services.”

The company did not disclose the name of the contractor who made the software configuration error. Beck did say that Rocket Lab would continue to use that company on its future launches.

Rocket Lab’s separate telemetry stream, unaffected by the software glitch, showed that the rocket was performing as planned up until the flight was terminated. “We have demonstrated Electron was following its nominal trajectory and was on course to reach orbit,” Beck said in the company’s statement.

In the interview, Beck noted that the company found the problem “very quickly” when reviewing the data collected from the launch. He said the company waited until now to disclose the cause until it completed a review of all the data. “We had to explore all of the possible branches of the fault tree” of possible causes of the failure, he said.

That review found no issues with the vehicle during the launch that require changes to future Electron vehicles. “We were very happy with the vehicle and the vehicle’s performance,” he said. “There’s almost no hardware changes.”

The second Electron, Beck said, will be rolled out to its New Zealand launch pad in about eight weeks, or early October. “There’s still quite some preparation of the launch vehicle once it’s on the pad,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll turn it a bit quicker this time.”

That launch, like the first, will be a test flight without a commercial payload. Rocket Lab originally planned to carry out three test flights of the Electron before starting commercial missions, but Beck said that if the next launch is a complete success, the company will skip the third test flight and move into commercial missions.

“Running another test flight won’t actually achieve much for us other than statistics,” he said. “Provided the second test flight goes well then we’ll accelerate directly into commercial operations.”

That schedule, he said, would allow a first commercial launch by the end of the year. That schedule is particularly essential to Moon Express, which plans to launch its MX-1E lunar lander on an Electron to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize. The prize rules require teams to launch their landers by the end of this year.

“We’re in a good position to fulfill that customer, for sure,” Beck said of Moon Express.

Other customers on Rocket Lab’s manifest will likely slip to 2018. One customer, NASA, had awarded Rocket Lab will a Venture Class Launch Services contract in late 2015. Earlier this summer NASA said that mission, designated by the agency as Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 19, was scheduled for November. In several presentations at a pre-conference workshop here Aug. 5 and 6, organizations developing cubesats that will fly on ELaNa 19 said they expected the launch to take place some time in early 2018.

Beck said that the company’s goal for 2018 was to perform one Electron launch a month. However, he acknowledged, “it will take us a while to get to one a month” as it ramps of production at facilities in New Zealand and California.

Despite not making it to orbit on the first Electron, Beck said he was “immensely proud” of what the company has accomplished. “The vehicle performed very well, and now we’re just cruising home to orbit,” he said.