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Start-up fails first launch as rocket explodes off Alaska’s coast


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A rocket operated by a California-based start-up failed near the coast of Alaska Tuesday, marking yet another mishap for companies hoping to offer their services to launch scores of small satellites into orbit.

The privately held ABL Space Systems attempted to launch its RS1 rocket at 1:27 p.m. local time (5:27 p.m. ET) in Alaska. But the company confirmed shortly after that there was an “anomaly,” an aerospace term for an issue or misstep, and the rocket “shut down prematurely.”

“This is not the outcome we were hoping for today, but one that we prepared for. We’ll revert with additional information when available,” the company said in a tweet. “Thanks to all for the support.”

The mission was aiming to carry two small satellites to orbit for OmniTeq, which recently spun off its space division. The company signed an agreement for ABL’s first launch in 2021 when it was still operating under the name L2 Aerospace.

ABL’s launch attempt on Tuesday was the second failure in two days for a burgeoning new industry: ABL is one among a long list of companies pursuing the same market — offering relatively cheap and easy access to launch services for operators of small satellites, which in years past have had to wait for extra room to open up aboard larger rockets.

On Monday, Virgin Orbit, a direct competitor of ABL attempting to launch its first mission out of the United Kingdom, acknowledged that its air-launched rocket failed to reach orbit.

The core of the business model propped up by companies like ABL and Virgin Orbit is offering frequent rides to space and making the process more responsive to the needs of small satellite companies, including those that are essentially building massive constellations of satellites in low-Earth orbit for a variety of purposes, such as providing space-based internet or monitoring Earth’s climate and resources.

These small spacecraft include SmallSats, which are as big as a family-size kitchen fridge, and a popular subset of SmallSats called CubeSats, which are standardized, miniature satellites that can be smaller than a shoebox.

The start-ups build rockets that are much smaller than SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, for example. But so far, the new class of smaller rockets have not proven to be as reliable as their larger counterparts. Nearly every start-up in the industry has suffered at least one launch failure.

In a packed field, ABL was hoping to join a short list of US-based ventures that have notched at least one successful mission. The first, in 2018, was Rocket Lab, which so far has more than two dozen successful launches and three failures. Start-ups Astra and Firefly have also delivered satellites to orbit — as well as suffered setbacks.

Those companies may soon be joined by yet another start-up, Relativity, which currently has its first rocket poised at a launch site in Florida.

While all these rockets dedicated to launching small satellites are taking off, they do face competition from larger rockets that have started catering certain services to the same market. SpaceX, for example, started a SmallSat “rideshare” business in 2019 with its hefty Falcon 9 rocket, and the company so far has launched six missions dedicated to small satellites for various customers.

The failed ABL launch Monday comes after the first few attempts to get its RS1 rocket off the ground in December came up short. The company worked through several technical problems, including a faulty sensor and a couple pressurization issues, to get the RS1 ready for Tuesday’s flight attempt.





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