SEATTLE — The first flight of ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket failed to reach orbit on Jan. 10, the second loss of a small commercial launch vehicle in 24 hours.
The company said it would attempt the launch of RS1 from the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska (PSCA) on Kodiak Island at 6:27 p.m. Eastern Time. The company was not broadcasting the launch on the web, but rather offering updates via social media.
The company announced more than 20 minutes after the scheduled liftoff that the launch had failed. “After takeoff, RS1 experienced an anomaly and terminated prematurely,” the company tweeted. “The team is working on our anomaly response procedures in coordination with the PSCA and FAA.”
After takeoff, RS1 experienced an anomaly and stopped prematurely. The team is working on our anomaly response procedures in coordination with the PSCA and FAA.
— ABL (@ablspacesystems) January 10, 2023
The company did not provide additional details about the failure, including when the anomaly occurred after takeoff or the nature of the anomaly. “This is not the result we hoped for today, but the one we prepared for,” the company said.
RS1 is a small launcher developed by ABL, capable of placing up to 1,350 kilograms into low Earth orbit. The two-stage vehicle has nine of its E2 engines in its first stage and one vacuum-optimized E2 engine in the upper stage, using kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. The vehicle is designed to be launched from facilities with minimal infrastructure.
During the inaugural launch, the RS1 carried two small satellites for OmniTeq. The mission was designed to demonstrate OmniTeq’s equalizer deployer as well as test its VariSat high-frequency radio payload.
The failure came after several failed launch attempts in November and December. The company aborted its first launch attempt on Nov. 14 half an hour before liftoff due to a valve failure in the rocket’s lower-stage fuel tank pressurization system. A second attempt on November 17 reached T-1.8 seconds before stopping due to low pressure in half of its gas generators when attempting to ignite the first stage. The company concluded that it had improperly conditioned the liquid oxygen in the vehicle.
A third attempt on November 21 was aborted at T-1.75 seconds due to low pressure in the system used to ignite the engine, using a substance called TEA-TEB. “This one was close,” the company said in a later recap posted on its website, as the pressure was just below the launch shutdown threshold. “If we had been only 0.3% less conservative, RS1 would have flown that day.”
ABL swept a fourth attempt on Dec. 8 at T-6 minutes for what the company later explained was “unexpected electrical interference” in the rocket’s avionics. This interference, the company said, was only observed when the vehicle was loaded with propellant.
ABL has raised several hundred million dollars from venture capitalists, with Lockheed Martin being both a strategic investor and a major client. Lockheed signed a contract in April 2021 for up to 58 RS1 launches through the end of the decade and has also selected the RS1 to carry out its ‘UK Pathfinder’ launch from SaxaVord spaceport in the Shetland Islands later in 2023 .
The RS1 failure took place almost exactly 24 hours after Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket suffered an unexplained anomaly during its “Start Me Up” mission from Spaceport Cornwall in England. This issue occurred during the second stage trigger, but the company did not provide additional details about the failure. This failure occurred during LauncherOne’s sixth mission, and after four consecutive successes.
It is also the fourth launch failure in less than a month. A Vega C rocket suffered a malfunction during its second launch on December 20. Arianespace and the European Space Agency are jointly investigating the failure and have not provided any updates since a briefing the day after the crash.
Zhuque-2, a rocket developed by Chinese private launch company Landspace, malfunctioned during its maiden launch on December 14. Zhuque-2 was attempting to be the first launch vehicle using methane as fuel to reach orbit.