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 which 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 to be the second time that Rocket Lab performed a rocket recovery, after picking one up post-launch back in November. The company had created 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.
It doesn’t look like the first-stage recovery is happening based on Rocket Lab’s statements thus far, but the company says that it will be providing more information on the failed launch once that becomes available.