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Mahia . . . we have a problem

13th launch ends in failure.

It was a case of “unlucky 13” for the latest rocket launch from Mahia yesterday after United-States-based space company Rocket Lab lost its rocket and payloads just short of orbit.

Following a successful lift-off, first stage burn and stage separation, Rocket Lab experienced an anomaly during its 13th Electron mission it called Pics Or It Didn't Happen.

A company statement said the issue occurred about four minutes into the flight and resulted in the “safe loss” of the vehicle.

“As a result, the payloads on board Electron were not deployed to orbit.

“Electron remained within the predicted launch corridors and caused no harm to personnel or the launch site.

“Rocket Lab is working closely with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to investigate the anomaly and identify its root cause to correct the issue to move forward.”

Rocket Lab spokeswoman Morgan Bailey said customers were typically covered with launch insurance and there would be no environmental fall-out.

“The anomaly happened late into the mission when the vehicle was in space and travelling at more than 7000km per hour. At that speed and height it's likely much of the stage will have been burned upon re-entry. Any parts of the rocket that didn't burn up will have sunk to the ocean floor more than 1000 km from Mahia in a pre-determined safety zone.

“This late in the mission most of the fuel and oxidiser will have been used so very little will have remained in the vehicle. The materials Electron is made from are non-toxic and do not leach out into the environment.”

An assessment from the Environmental Protection Authority had shown the environmental impact of a jettisoned stage was nil.

The primary payload was for Canon Electronics, intended to demonstrate Canon Electronics' Earth-imaging technology with high-resolution and wide-angle cameras, as well as test the micro-satellite for mass production.

The vehicle was also carrying the latest generation of SuperDove satellites manufactured by Planet, operator of the world's largest constellation of Earth-observation satellites, equipped with new sensors to enable higher image quality with sharper, more vibrant colours and accurate surface reflectance values for advanced algorithms and time-series analysis.

The final spacecraft aboard was supplied by British company In-Space Missions. The Faraday-1 6U CubeSat is a hosted payload mission providing a low-cost route to orbit for start-ups, institutions, and large corporate research and development groups.

It also included a payload (Prometheus-1) from British company Airbus Defence and Space Ltd.

“The primary mission of Prometheus-1 was a radio technology demonstration for spectrum monitoring,” said the NZ Space Agency”.

Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck said Rocket Lab was “deeply sorry to our customers”.

“We know many people poured their hearts and souls into those spacecraft.”

Mr Beck said the anomaly was a reminder that space launch could be unforgiving.

“We will identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible. The launch team operated with professionalism and expertise to implement systems and procedures that ensured the anomaly was managed safely. I'm proud of the way they have responded to a tough day. We're working together as a team to comb through the data, learn from today, and prepare for our next mission.”

The loss of the rocket and payloads occurred after 11 consecutive successful orbital launches of the Electron launch vehicle. The mission was the company's thirteenth launch from Mahia.

When asked to give comment on the unlucky number and in reference to the Apollo 13 moon flight that failed two days into the mission, Mr Beck said: “Let me put it this way, I'm not naming anything after the number 13 ever again and I'm not a superstitious person.”

Not this time: A successful launch from Rocket Lab's Mahia base in 2018. Unfortunately, launch No.13 on Saturday resulted in 'an anomaly' and the 'safe loss' of the Electron rocket. Rocket Lab picture