A Hapith-I rocket stands on a launch pad at the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex, Australia, in this undated image. Credit: Southern Launch

SEOUL, South Korea — Launch startup Taiwan Innovative Space Inc.’s quest to field a commercial smallsat launcher suffered a setback last month when a suborbital prototype of a planned orbital rocket caught fire during liftoff. TiSPACE plans to try again before year’s end with a reserve rocket.

As the first and only commercial rocket company in Taiwan, TiSPACE is developing a three-stage rocket called Hapith-5 designed to carry up to 300 kilograms of payload to sun-synchronous orbits.

During a Sept. 16 launch attempt from Australia’s Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex, a synthetic-rubber-fueled suborbital rocket called Hapith-I had just started to lift off when it caught fire and fell over. Launch site operator Southern Launch said in a Sept. 22 statement that no one was hurt and that local firefighters onsite for the test flight kept the fire from spreading beyond the launchpad. Southern Launch attributed the fire to an internal fault during ignition of the two-stage rocket’s first stage.  

“This test launch vehicle may not have taken Australia to space, however it has provided our teams with valuable data and insights, which will lead TiSPACE in refining their launch vehicle capabilities further, and Southern Launch with the vibration and noise data needed to support the major development of the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex,” Lloyd Damp, Southern Launch CEO, said in a statement.

The Hapith-I fire occurred during TiSPACE’s third launch attempt in six days. The previous day, a countdown was aborted when a system failed to come online. Strong winds forced a scrub five days earlier. 

TiSPACE CEO Yen-Sen Chen told SpaceNews via email that Hapith-I caught fire and fell on the starboard side of the launch pad. The rocket’s first-stage tank ruptured when it fell but the rocket did not explode. Tank pressure remained at about 9 bar after the rupture, which Chen said may have been “caused by structural damage as a result of pipework breaking apart when the rocket fell.”

As for the launch pad itself, Chen said the flame deflector “got smoked by the fire” but the rest of the pad was “unscathed.”

Chen said a material used near the base of the rocket appears to have caught fire during ignition. The damaged rocket won’t be used again, but Chen said Hapith-I launch campaigns will resume by the end of the year after making a “minor material change” to two remaining rockets. 

Meanwhile, work continues on the three-stage Hapith-5 smallsat launcher, which Chen said is scheduled to make its maiden flight “around the third quarter of 2022.” He said the first flight will carry a 150-kilogram satellite to sun-synchronous orbit. The vehicle will eventually carry 300 kilograms of satellite payload to SSO. 

While Hapith-I is serving as a technology pathfinder for Hapith-5, the company said the suborbital rocket will play “multifunctional roles for a wide variety of commercial applications” after its test flights are completed. 

TiSPACE originally  planned to test Hapith-I from a launch site in Taiwan, but the site was scrapped over legal issues concerning the location.

In addition to launch, TiSPACE may start conducting even more of its operations abroad. According to an Aug. 23 press release from Australia’s trade minister, TiSPACE is considering “bringing manufacturing of complete rocket systems” to Australia. 

TiSPACE was founded in 2016 by Chen, a former visiting scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, to develop cost-effective launch vehicles for low-Earth-orbit smallsats, according to its website.

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...