First launch by ABL Space Systems fails shortly after liftoff – Spaceflight Now

An ABL RS1 missile lifts off from Kodiak Island, Alaska, on Wednesday. Credit: ABL Space Systems

ABL Space Systems’ first RS1 rocket plunged back into the launch pad in Kodiak Island, Alaska, shortly after taking off Tuesday on the company’s first orbital launch attempt, officials said, destroying the rocket and damaging the ground facility.

“After takeoff, the RS1 encountered an anomaly and shut down prematurely,” ABL tweeted on Tuesday. “This is not the result we had hoped for today, but the result we have prepared for.”

The 88-foot (27-meter) RS1 rocket lifted off from Launch Pad 3C at the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, at 6:27 p.m. EDT (2:27 p.m. EDT; 2327 GMT) on Tuesday. The rocket was supposed to head south from Kodiak over the Pacific Ocean in an effort to put two small satellites into polar orbit about 200 miles (300 kilometers) above Earth.

But the RS1 rocket stumbled shortly after launch.

“Early in today’s ride, all nine RS1 engines shut off E2 simultaneously,” said ABL. “RS1 impacted the pad and was destroyed.”

Launch failures were not uncommon on the rocket’s inaugural test flights. SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Astra, and Firefly failed to reach orbit on their first attempts.

“As would be expected in this scenario, there is damage to the launch facility,” ABL said. “All personnel are safe, and the fires have subsided. We will plan to return to flight after investigations are complete. Thanks to our contributors and space community for the expressions of support.”

ABL is investigating the launch failure, in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration and 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 launch vehicles. ABL did not broadcast the first flight of the RS1 rocket on Tuesday, but it did provide occasional updates on the countdown on Twitter, then issued statements on the social media site after the launch failure.

ABL has canceled several launch attempts since November due to technical issues and bad weather, including aborts during the engine start-up sequence just before takeoff. The launch campaign followed static testing of the RS1 rocket’s first stage and a series of fuel-loading demonstrations at Kodiak.

The two-stage RS1 missile is capable of placing a payload of approximately 3,000 pounds (1,350 kg) in a low-altitude equatorial orbit, or about 2,138 pounds (970 kg) in a 310-mile (500 km) polar orbit according to the ABL.

Founded in 2017, ABL is headquartered in El Segundo, California and is backed by venture capital funds and funds from Lockheed Martin. ABL reported a $2.4 billion valuation in 2021 during its most recent fundraising round, with a backlog of more than 75 missions, mainly from a whopping order of 58 launches from Lockheed Martin. ABL also has a contract to launch NASA’s Experimental Small Satellite Technology mission, and is one of 13 companies on NASA’s list of enterprise-class launch service providers.

The US Space Force has added ABL to its list of 11 companies eligible to win contracts to launch small satellite payloads for the military over nine years.

After Tuesday’s launch anomaly, ABL said it would go ahead with another RS1 test flight. “We’re rocking a bit on Flight 2,” the company wrote on Twitter.

The RS1 rocket’s lift capability puts it at the top end of the pack of new small-satellite launch providers, slightly exceeding the performance of Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha rocket, which reached low Earth orbit for its second test flight Oct. 1 after launching from the Vandenberg Space Force. Pace, ca. Firefly’s alpha rocket deployed its CubeSat payloads into a lower-than-expected orbit, and the small satellites quickly returned to the atmosphere.

Rocket Lab’s Electron booster, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, and Astra’s Rocket 3 launch vehicle have smaller payload capabilities than ABL’s RS1. Astra has retired the Rocket 3 vehicle and is now developing a larger launcher called the Rocket 4.

An RS1 rocket from ABL Space Systems on the launch pad in Alaska. Credit: ABL Space Systems

ABL says a custom launch of its RS1 rocket costs $12 million, more than the price of a Rocket Lab mission but less than the price of a larger rocket like SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The size of the RS1 rocket is “small enough to simplify development, manufacturing and operations, but large enough to deliver the cost of a launch.” for each satellite with a fraction of a smaller vehicle,” ABL says.

The company says the launches are based on a “containerized launch solution,” allowing it to deploy ground support equipment and missiles 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.

On its first test flight, the ABL RS1 rocket was to fly south from Kodiak Island over the Pacific Ocean with two small shoebox-sized CubeSats for OmniTeq, a Texas-based company that provides flight launch services with plans to deploy a constellation of small satellites. To provide marine communications services.

Two OmniTeq satellites on the RS1 rocket’s first orbital launch attempt were designed to test operate OmniTeq’s VariSat high-frequency communications payload, according to ABL. The mission was also expected to demonstrate OmniTeq’s Equalizer Deployment Tool, a mechanism designed to get CubeSats into orbit on small satellite launches on multiple types of rockets.

The satellites weighed less than 50 pounds, or about 22 kilograms, according to an FCC report from OmniTeq. The payloads were destroyed by an RS1 missile during the launch failure Tuesday.

The RS1 rocket’s first stage was powered by nine E2 kerosene-fueled main engines which in T-minus 2 seconds ignited and throttled to produce more than 133,000 lbs. of sea level. The first stage was to cruise for two and a half minutes, then jettison to drop into the Pacific Ocean, making room for an upper stage powered by a single E2 engine generating about 13,000 pounds of thrust.

The rocket’s payload would have been jettisoned after 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 lift off from the rocket 12 minutes and 14 minutes after launch.

Nine E2 engines in the first stage of the RS1 rocket. Credit: ABL Space Systems

Tuesday’s abnormal ABL launch was the second failure of a US-made small commercial satellite launcher in less than 24 hours. Virgin Orbit, a small satellite launch company owned in part by Richard Branson, suffered the failure of its LauncherOne rocket, which was shot down by planes on Monday.

Virgin Orbit’s failed launch was based out of Spaceport Cornwall in the southwestern part of England, as the carrier’s Boeing 747 headed into the Atlantic Ocean to launch LauncherOne’s 70-foot (21-meter) rocket.

LauncherOne’s second stage failed a few minutes after the aircraft launched the missile southwest of Ireland. The rocket and its nine small payloads returned to the burning atmosphere near the Canary Islands.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @employee.

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