ABL Space Systems’ first RS1 rocket crashed back into the launch pad on Tuesday from Kodiak Island, Alaska, shortly after liftoff during the company’s first orbital launch attempt, destroying the rocket and damaging the lander.
“After takeoff, RS1 experienced an anomaly and shut down prematurely,” the ABL tweeted on Tuesday. “It’s not the outcome we expect today, it’s the outcome we’re preparing for.”
The 88-foot-tall (27-meter) RS1 rocket lifted off Tuesday from Launch Pad 3C at the Pacific Space Complex on Kodiak Island. The rocket was supposed to travel south from Kodiak over the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to place two small satellites into a polar orbit about 200 miles (300 kilometers) above Earth.
However, the RS1 rocket weakened shortly after launch.
“At the start of today’s flight, all nine of RS1’s E2 engines shut down simultaneously,” ABL said. “The RS1 hit the pad and was destroyed.”
Launch failures are not uncommon in the first test flights of rockets. SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Astra and Firefly failed to reach orbit in their first attempts.
“As expected in this scenario, the launch vehicle was damaged,” ABL said. “All personnel are safe, the fires have subsided. We will plan to return to flight once the investigations are complete. We thank our stakeholders and the space community for their expressions of support.”
ABL is investigating the launch failure in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which owns the spaceport on Kodiak Island.
The California-based startup is one of a new generation of commercial companies working on small satellite carriers. The ABL did not live-stream Tuesday’s first flight of the RS1 rocket, but provided intermittent updates on the countdown on Twitter, then issued statements on the social media site after the launch failure.
We’re getting a little tight for Flight 2. More to come. pic.twitter.com/Gm7DyELq6C
— ABL (@ablspacesystems) January 11, 2023
ABL has canceled several launch attempts since November due to technical problems and bad weather, including aborts during engine start just before takeoff. The launch campaign followed a static test launch of the first stage of the RS1 rocket and a series of propellant loading demonstrations on Kodiak.
The two-stage RS1 rocket is capable of placing about 3,000 pounds (1,350 kilograms) of payload into a low-altitude equatorial orbit or about 2,138 pounds (970 kilograms) into a polar orbit at an altitude of 310 miles (500 kilometers). , according to ABL.
Founded in 2017, ABL is headquartered in El Segundo, California and is backed by venture capital funds and money from Lockheed Martin. ABL reported a valuation of $2.4 billion in its most recent fundraising round in 2021, with more than 75 missions behind from a bulk order of up to 58 launches, primarily from Lockheed Martin. ABL also has a contract to launch NASA’s small satellite technology demo mission and is one of 13 companies on NASA’s list of suppliers for venture-level launch services.
The US Space Force has added ABL to a list of 11 companies eligible to win contracts to launch military small satellite payloads over nine years.
After Tuesday’s launch anomaly, ABL said it would move forward with another RS1 test flight. “We’re getting a little nervous for Flight 2,” the company tweeted.
The RS1 rocket’s lift puts it at the top of the list of new small satellite launch providers, slightly surpassing the performance of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket, which reached low Earth orbit on October 1 on its second test flight after launching from Vandenberg Space Force. Base, California. Firefly’s Alpha rocket placed the CubeSat payloads into a lower-than-expected orbit, and the small satellites soon re-entered the atmosphere.
Rocket Lab’s Electron booster, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne and Astra’s Rocket 3 launch vehicle have a smaller payload capacity than ABL’s RS1. Astra has retired its Rocket 3 vehicle and is now developing a larger launcher called the Rocket 4.
ABL says its special edition RS1 rocket costs $12 million, more than the cost of a Rocket Lab mission but less than a larger rocket like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The scale of the RS1 rocket is “small enough to facilitate development. production and operations, but large enough to deliver the launch cost per satellite at a fraction of a smaller vehicle,” ABL said.
The company says its launch operations are based on a “containerized launch solution” that allows it to deploy ground support equipment and rockets to various spaceports with minimal pre-existing ground infrastructure. ABL plans to eventually launch missions from Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg Space Force Base, and the United Kingdom.
For its first test flight, ABL’s RS1 rocket was to fly south from Kodiak Island over the Pacific Ocean carrying two small shoebox-sized CubeSats. For OmniTeq, a Texas company that provides rideshare launch services, plans to deploy a constellation of small satellites. providing maritime communication services.
According to ABL, the two OmniTeg satellites on the first orbital launch attempt of the RS1 rocket were designed to test the performance of OmniTeg’s VariSat high-frequency communications payload. The mission was also expected to demonstrate OmniTeq’s Equalizer deployer, a mechanism designed to launch CubeSats into orbit in small satellite rideshare launches on several types of rockets.
The total weight of the satellites was less than 50 pounds, or about 22 kilograms, OmniTeq reported to the Federal Communications Commission. The payloads were destroyed by the RS1 rocket during Tuesday’s launch failure.
The first stage of the RS1 rocket is powered by a nine-fuel E2 main engine that ignites at T-minus 2 seconds and throttles to deliver more than 133,000 pounds of thrust above sea level. The first stage was supposed to fire in about two and a half minutes, then spin down into the Pacific Ocean and transfer to the upper stage, powered by a single E2 engine generating about 13,000 pounds of thrust.
The rocket’s payload would last more than three minutes into flight, and the upper stage engine was programmed to shut down about 10 minutes after liftoff. The two OmniTeq satellites were then expected to land 12 minutes after launch and 14 minutes after launch.
Tuesday’s ABL launch anomaly was the second failure of a U.S.-based small commercial satellite launch facility in less than 24 hours. Virgin Orbit, a small rocket launch company partly owned by Richard Branson, suffered a malfunction on Monday’s launch of its LauncherOne rocket.
Virgin Orbit’s failed launch took off from Cornwall Spaceport in southwest England, where the company’s Boeing 747 carrier aircraft crossed the Atlantic Ocean to launch the 70-foot-long (21-meter) LauncherOne rocket.
LauncherOne’s second stage failed minutes after the launch vehicle launched the rocket over southwest Ireland. The rocket and its nine small satellite payloads re-entered the burned-up atmosphere near the Canary Islands.
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