ABL Space Systems may have figured out what was wrong on its very first liftoff.
The company’s two-stage RS1 rocket crashed to Earth shortly after launching from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska on Jan. 10, ending its first orbital mission prematurely and in flames.
ABL quickly launched an investigation into the failure in conjunction with the US Federal Aviation Administration. A week later, this detective work has already made considerable progress, even focusing on one possible cause – a fire in the RS1’s avionics system.
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The first stage of the RS1 “suffered a total loss of power” 10.87 seconds after liftoff, ABL explained in a Twitter update (opens in a new tab) Wednesday (January 18). The rocket continued to climb for another 2.63 seconds, reaching a peak altitude of 761 feet (232 meters), but then fell back to Earth, impacting about 60 feet (18 m) east of its launch pad.
“Approximately 95% of the vehicle’s total propellant mass was still on board, creating a forceful explosion and pressure wave that caused damage to nearby equipment and facilities,” the company wrote in the update. The damaged equipment included communications equipment on the platform, as well as fuel and water storage tanks.
The accident scattered debris over an area with a radius of 0.25 miles (0.40 kilometres) and started a fire that destroyed an ABL fabric hangar and much of the “integration equipment “which it housed,” ABL wrote in the update.
No one was injured as the affected area was cleared prior to takeoff in accordance with safety procedures.
Seven days into the investigation into the failure, the team has identified several interesting “factual patterns”, the update notes. For example, abnormal pressure and temperature peaks occurred in the aft cavity of the first stage a few seconds after takeoff.
“Additionally, there is visual evidence of fire or smoke near the vehicle QD and engine compartment after takeoff,” the update read. (QD probably stands for “quick disconnect”, an interface connecting the rocket to a thruster or other service line.)
“Shortly before the power outage, a handful of sensors began to disconnect sequentially,” the update continues. “This evidence suggests that an unwanted fire has spread to our avionics system, causing a system-wide failure.”
ABL will endeavor to verify this provisional conclusion and, if confirmed, to determine the cause of the fire.
As the investigation continues, the company is also repairing the launch pad and preparing for its second orbital launch attempt. It is too early to speculate on the date of this next take-off; the timeline depends on the results of the anomaly investigation, company representatives said.
ABL was founded in 2017 and is based in Southern California. The company intends to secure a significant share of the small satellite launch market with the 88-foot-tall (27 m) RS1, which is powered by nine of ABL’s E2 engines in its first stage and one in its upper floor.
The rocket is capable of launching up to 2,975 pounds (1,350 kilograms) of payload into low Earth orbit, according to ABL’s user guide (opens in a new tab). The company currently charges $12 million per RS1 mission and already has dozens of launches on its file. For example, in 2021 ABL signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin to fly up to 58 missions through 2029.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or on Facebook (opens in a new tab).