Electron launch May 2021
A Rocket Lab electron lifts off May 15 from the company’s New Zealand launch site. The launch failed minutes later when the second stage’s engine appeared to shut down seconds after ignition. Credit: Rocket Lab webcast

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab said June 2 that it is continuing to study the “complex failure” on its most recent Electron launch, even after receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to resume launches.

The company said in a statement that while the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation authorized the company to resume launches under its existing license, the company is continuing to investigate the cause of the May 15 launch failure of an Electron rocket carrying two BlackSky imaging satellites.

Peter Beck, Rocket Lab chief executive, said in the statement that the accident was a “complex failure” requiring “an intricate and layered failure analysis.” The company, though, is making progress and expects to complete failure review in the coming weeks.

That launch appeared to go well until moments after stage separation, approximately three minutes into the flight. The second stage engine ignited but, in onboard video shown during the company’s webcast, shut down seconds later. The company said two days later that the flight computer on the rocket shut down the engine after detecting an unspecified issue with it.

Rocket Lab offered few new details on the cause of the failure in its latest statement. “Shortly after the stage 2 ignition, the engine computer detected that conditions for flight were not met and performed a safe shut down,” the company said, but didn’t elaborate on those conditions that led to the engine shutdown.

“We have successfully replicated the failure in testing and determined it required multiple conditions to occur in flight,” Beck said in the statement. “We are now piecing together the sequence of events and preparing corrective actions for a safe and swift return to flight.”

The May 15 failure was the second in less than a year for Electron, one of the most popular small launch vehicles. Rocket Lab blamed a July 2020 failure on an “anomalous electrical connection” in the second stage, and resumed launches nearly two months later. Rocket Lab said in its latest statement that it “anticipates a swift return to flight” but did not offer a more specific schedule.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...