Rocket Lab has pinpointed the problem that meant its first Electron rocket was killed before it got to orbit but the company is confident the fault has been ironed out.

While it made it to space, the flight in May had to be terminated due to an independent contractor's ground equipment issue, rather than an issue with the rocket. Rocket Lab's internal investigation board has identified steps to correct the problem.

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The rocket, named "It's a Test", was terminated due to a "data loss time out", which was caused by misconfiguration of telemetry equipment owned and operated by a third-party contractor at the launch from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula.


Four minutes into the flight, at an altitude of 224km, the equipment lost contact with the rocket temporarily and, according to standard operating procedures, range safety officials terminated the flight by cutting power to its engines. The rocket disintegrated as it fell back into the Earth's atmosphere in the Southern Ocean.

Data, including that from Rocket Lab's own telemetry equipment, confirmed the rocket was still following a nominal trajectory and the vehicle was performing as planned at the time of termination.

Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck said the company had demonstrated Electron was following its nominal trajectory and was on course to reach orbit.

"While it was disappointing to see the flight terminated in essence due to an incorrect tick box, we can say we tested nearly everything, including the flight termination system. We were delighted with the amount of data we were able to collect during an exceptional first test launch.''

The investigation involved the review of over 25,000 channels of data collected during the May 25 flight in addition to extensive testing at Rocket Lab facilities in California and in this country.

The telemetry data loss that led to the termination of the flight has been directly linked to a key piece of equipment responsible for translating radio signals into data used by safety officials to track the vehicle performance.

It was discovered a contractor failed to enable forward error correction on this third-party device causing extensive corruption of received position data.

Beck said the contractor would be involved in future launches.


''We're not going to throw our contractors under a bus. It's not our style.''

The failure was first indicated by the fact that Rocket Lab's own equipment did not suffer similar data loss during launch. Further confirmation of the cause was demonstrated when replaying raw radio-frequency data - recorded on launch day - through correctly configured equipment also resolved the problem.

"The call to terminate a launch would be tough for anyone, and we appreciated the professionalism of the flight safety officials involved," said Beck.

"The fix for the issue is simple and corrective procedures have been put in place to prevent a similar issue in future. No major changes to the Electron launch vehicle hardware have been required and the company has authorised the production of four additional launch vehicles as it prepares for commercial operations ahead of the test flight programme."

The New Zealand-founded and United States-registered company aims to deliver small satellites into space for a much lower price than existing operators and launch as quickly as once a week.

Rocket Lab's second Electron rocket, named "Still Testing", is undergoing final checks and preparations ahead of being shipped to Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 within the next two months.

There would be a third test launch - into Sun-synchronous orbit of between 300km and 500km above the Earth's surface - before the company could move into commercial missions, as early as by the end of this year.