Full investigation launched into Rocket Lab's lost rocket

A view of Earth following the launch of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket.
A view of Earth following the launch of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket. Photo credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck says he won't know why a rocket was lost during the company's latest mission until a full investigation is completed.

The aerospace company had planned to deploy seven satellites from the Mahia Peninsula on Sunday, with the Electron rocket launching at 9:20am.

All appeared to be going to plan, with Rocket Lab sharing a stunning image of the Earth as Electron continued to orbit. However, the company confirmed shortly after that the vehicle had been lost during the second-stage burn.

"Today was a bit of a tough day during today's mission late into the flight. But following successful liftoff, successful first-stage burn, stage separation, we did experience an anomaly on the way to orbit that caused the loss of the vehicle - the rocket - and the payloads," Beck says.

"Obviously we're deeply sorry for the loss of the spacecraft from our customers and we're obviously very disappointed. However, we will leave no stone unturned to figure out exactly what happened today so we can learn from it and get back to the pad."

The mission marked Rocket Lab's 13th launch. The satellites were to be deployed to a 500km circular low Earth orbit for a number of customers, including Spaceflight Inc's client Canon Electronics, as well as small operators Planet and In-Space Missions.

Beck says after the rocket was lost, it followed a safe re-entry trajectory from space. He added it will largely burn up as it moves through the atmosphere.

A standard Electron mission costs US$7.5 million (NZ$11.4 million), and depending on complexity of the mission the price can move around.

The financial loss is covered by rocket insurance, but he says the real cost is the time it takes to investigate what went wrong and make corrections.

"We won't put another vehicle in the sky until we're really, really happy. We've got thousands and thousands of channels and data to trawl through to figure out root cause, make any corrections, so that's probably the biggest loss for us is just the time," he says.

"This hurts our pride a lot more than anything and certainly we never like to be in a failure investigation to fix it, but this really doesn't affect our business or viability thereof in any way.

"Put it this way - I'm not naming anything after '13' ever again, and I'm not a superstitious person."

Beck says it is too early to know how long the investigation will take.

Full investigation launched into Rocket Lab's lost rocket
Photo credit: Rocket Lab

Sunday's launch included Canon Electronics Inc's 67kg Earth-imaging satellite CE-SAT-IB to photograph objects on the ground as small as 90cm wide. The mission objective for the CE-SAT-IB was to demonstrate Canon Electronics' Earth-imaging technology with high-resolution and wide-angle cameras, as well as test the microsatellite for mass production.

It also included five shoebox-sized Earth observation satellites for the San Francisco company Planet. Planet's satellites are capable of imaging the Earth's entire landmass on a near-daily basis, according to Rocket Lab, helping researchers, businesses and governments discover patterns and detect early signals of change.

The final spacecraft aboard the Electron rocket was supplied by British company In-Space Missions.