Rocket Lab reveals what went wrong in terminated maiden flight
Things went wrong for Rocket Lab's maiden test launch four minutes after it blasted off from the company's Mahia Peninsula base on May 25.
At 224 kilometres above the ground, a software glitch kicked in and engineers briefly lost contact with the rocket, forcing them to terminate the flight.
The rocket plunged back to earth, most likely burning up in the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean.
It was a less than perfect end to what was otherwise a significant event for Rocket Lab and New Zealand – a world-first attempt to send a rocket into orbit from a private launch pad.
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The software glitch, the communication problem and the resulting decision by flight safety engineers to terminate the flight – details of which were revealed by the company on Monday – meant the rocket failed to reach its intended orbit.
The company admitted as much back on launch day, and on Monday repeated its assertion that failing to reach orbit was only a minor setback.
Its analysis of the "telemetry data loss" that led to the flight termination drew on a review of over 25,000 channels of data collected during the flight, as well as "extensive testing" at the company's New Zealand and US facilities, it said.
It concluded that a third-party contractor had effectively failed to "tick the right box" in software used by telemetry equipment to translate radio signals into data used by safety engineers tracking the rocket's flight path.
Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said the engineers had to terminate the flight because they could not be certain where the rocket would end up if it continued to blast into space.
But Beck said the performance of the rocket, and the data the company was able to collect on its maiden flight, was "phenomenal".
"It would have been great to have had a flawless flight – that's what everybody dreamed of – but to put that into context, governments spend billions of dollars and don't get as far as we did on our first flight."
The maiden flight proved the rocket was "very solid" and the company was so confident about its future it had committed to building its first six commercial launch rockets as well as two more test rockets it planned to launch before the end of the year.
"What it's actually meant is we've accelerated our programme into commercial flight," Beck said.
"This is why we have a test flight programme: to find out the things that are right and wrong. After flight 1, and reviewing all the data, it's put us in a really strong position to go commercial earlier than we hoped."