The 12 biggest rocket failures of 2022 show why spaceflight is still hard

blue origin rocket in middle of a fireball during launch
Blue Origin's New Shepard system experienced an anomaly Sept. 12, 2022. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

Rockets need thousands of things to go right to reach space, but just one issue can bring things back down to Earth with a bang. This year has seen a record number of launch attempts, and so it is unsurprising that sometimes, things went wrong. 

Despite the number of historic launches that did go well this year, there were of course those that either never made it to space or failed to deploy their payloads once they got there. 

Below is a list of some of the biggest space mission failures suffered in 2022.

Related: Space calendar 2022-2023: Rocket launches, skywatching events, missions & more!

Astra rocket suffers catastrophic failure in 1st Florida launch

Astra, founded in 2016, is looking to secure itself a place in the launch market and looked to build on a successful flight of its Rocket 3 series in November 2021. However its Feb. 10 launch ended in a spin.

The two-stage LV0008 lifted off from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station today performed well initially, soaring high into the Florida skies, but an issue occurred around 3 minutes into flight. "That was fairing separation and stage separation," was announced during the webcast. Those events occurred, but not the desired way. The fairings appeared not to separate until the upper stage engine ignites, blasting the two nose cone halves asunder but also leaving the stage in a rapid spin, as seen from the point of view of an onboard camera.

The event meant loss of the mission and four tiny cubesats on the ELaNa 41 mission for NASA.

Read more: Astra rocket suffers catastrophic failure in 1st Florida launch, 4 satellites lost

Third failure in a row for iSpace's Hyperbola 1 rocket

This still from a CCTV video shows scenes from the first successful launch of Hyperbola-1, a privately built orbital rocket built by the Chinese company iSpace. It lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on July 25, 2019. (Image credit: CCTV)

Back in July 2019 iSpace became the first Chinese private company to launch a rocket into orbit using its four-stage Hyperbola 1 solid rocket. Things have not gone so well since then, with two failures last year being followed up by a third consecutive launch failure.

The fourth Hyperbola 1 lifted off (opens in new tab) from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on May 13. All seemed well early on according to amateur footage (opens in new tab) but silence followed in place of a confirmation of launch success. The Beijing-based company confirmed the loss of the rocket and its payloads and in October revealed (opens in new tab)that the failure stemmed from an issue with the attitude control system. With no control over the direction of the rocket, a self-destruct command was activated.

Read more: Chinese startup iSpace fails to reach orbit again with Hyperbola-1 rocket

Astra rocket suffers second failure, 2 NASA satellites lost

Astra suffered a second failure of 2022 on June 12 which cost the first two NASA TROPICS cubesats to study hurricanes. 

"We had a nominal first stage flight; however, the upper-stage engine did shut down early and we did not deliver our payloads to orbit," Astra's Amanda Durk Frye, senior manager for first stage and engine production, said during live launch commentary. 

This was the second failure of Astra's Rocket 3.3, which prompted the firm in August to cancel the launcher and transition to a next-generation launch system called Rocket 4. 

Read more: Astra cancels Rocket 3 line after multiple launch failures

India's new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle fails first flight test

India launched a new rocket named the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on India's southeastern coast on Aug. 6, with the inaugural flight going well for the early stages, before hitting a snag on the fourth and final stage. 

A sensor issue meant the upper stage failed to deliver its two satellite payloads into their intended orbit, meaning they could not be used. "The satellites were placed in an elliptical orbit in place of a circular orbit," ISRO Chairman S. Somanath said in a video statement after the launch, explaining that the satellites' closest approach to Earth was as close as 47 miles (76 km), meaning the atmosphere would very quickly drag them back to Earth. ISRO will investigate the issues and prepare for a second test flight of the SSLV rocket, Somanath said.

Read more: India's new rocket fails to put satellites in right orbit in debut launch

New Shepard suffers anomaly during launch

Blue Origin's New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket has gained attention with its tourist flights from Launch Site One in West Texas, sending up to six people at a time above the Kármán line — the unofficial boundary between Earth's atmosphere and the beginning of space at 62 miles (100 kilometers) above mean sea level.

In August the rocket carried a sixth tourist mission but a Sept. 12 science-only mission did not go as expected. A problem occurred with the New Shepard booster a little before the mission reached an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,000 meters). The escape system worked as planned, jetting the capsule away from trouble and allowing it to descend safely to Earth under parachutes and be recovered safely, but the booster was likely destroyed. The rocket is now grounded while the FAA investigates the failure.

Read more: Blue Origin's New Shepard suffers anomaly during launch, capsule lands safely

Firefly declares Alpha rocket launch success but satellites fall back to Earth

Firefly made its second attempt to launch the 95-foot-tall (29 meters) Alpha rocket on Oct. 1, lifting off from California's Vandenberg Space Force Base and successfully inserting three satellites into low Earth orbit. The launch appeared to go well and was a welcome bounceback after Firefly's first launch in September 2021 ended in failure when one of its first stage engines shut down prematurely.

The firm had declared the launch a success, but the mission was another affected by the payloads being inserted into lower-than-intended orbits, and the satellites reentering the atmosphere already on Oct. 5, far earlier than desired. The company was however optimistic in the face of this, stating that they only need to make "very minor tweaks for our next mission."

Read more: Firefly declares Alpha rocket launch success despite satellites falling back to Earth

Scottish rocket startup Skyrora fails on 1st space launch attempt

Skyrora's Skylark L suborbital rocket failed to reach space during its first test launch in October 2022. (Image credit: Skyrora)

Skyrora is one of a number of European launch startups aiming to reach orbit and plans to launch its Skyrora XL vehicle in 2023. As a step towards this, the firm attempted the launch of a suborbital rocket from the coast of Iceland Oct. 8 with the target of reaching an altitude of 77 miles (125 kilometers). 

First launches are harder than others, however, and often provide lessons. The Skylark L rocket didn't reach the heights it aimed for and shut down shortly after liftoff, falling into the Norwegian Sea about a third of a mile (500 meters) from the coastal site, company officials said. A new suborbital attempt could take place in Q2 2023, ahead of the planned orbital launch.

Read more: Scottish rocket startup Skyrora fails on 1st space launch attempt

Japan's Epsilon rocket fails during launch of tech-demonstrating satellite

A Japanese Epsilon rocket lifts off on Oct. 11, 2022, from Uchinoura Space Center. The launch failed, according to media reports. (Image credit: JAXA)

Japan's first and only launch attempt of 2022 saw an Epsilon rocket liftoff from the Uchinoura Space Center on Oct. 11 for a mission known as Innovative Satellite Technology Demonstration 3.

All seemed well after the first two stages but that webcast indicated that trouble seemed to arise around the time when the third stage was supposed to kick on. As a result, mission controllers activated Epsilon's flight termination system, which destroyed the rocket.

Read more: Japan's Epsilon rocket fails during launch of tech-demonstrating satellite: reports

North Korea's most powerful ballistic missile fails

A passerby in Seoul, South Korea watches footage of a North Korean missile blasting off on Nov. 3, 2022. (Image credit: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images)

Space launch vehicles send satellites into orbit to monitor the Earth, send probes to the moon and deep space, and astronauts to space stations. Yet, they are very similar to rockets which can send bombs over vast distances via space. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and delivery system program often provides a reminder of this darker side, but a Nov. 3 test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is believed to have failed, according to reports.

A "South Korean government source said officials suspect it was a Hwasong-17, North Korea's most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile," CNN reported. The test failed, according to that source, who spoke anonymously to CNN.

Read more: North Korea launches test flight for planned 2023 spy satellite

China's Long March 6A launches successfully but upper stage breaks up

Launch of the second Long March 6A rocket from Taiyuan spaceport on Nov. 11, 2022, carrying the Yunhai 3 satellite into orbit.  (Image credit: OurSpace)

China launched its second Long March 6A rocket—a first bundle of liquid-fueled core stage and solid side boosters—on Nov. 11, successfully sending the Yunhai 3 satellite into its intended orbit. All good then, apart from days later the upper stage that put the satellite in orbit suffered an event that turned the rocket stage into a shower of orbital debris. 

Initially tracked as around 50 pieces, by December it had disintegrated into a cloud of 350 objects which could pose a threat to spacecraft in orbit for decades to come, adding to the generalized threat posed by space debris in low Earth orbit. Space faring nations take steps to prevent these events, but as with other aspects of launch, not everything goes well all the time.

Read more: Chinese rocket body breaks up in orbit after successful satellite launch

China's launch of world's 1st methane-fueled orbital rocket fails

A Landspace Zhuque-2 rocket. (Image credit: Landspace)

A number of commercial Chinese launch companies have sprung up since 2014 when China opened its space sector to private capital. So far, these firms have launched simpler, relatively small solid rockets. That changed on Dec. 14 when Landspace launched its Zhuque 2 liquid propellant rocket from Jiuquan, which also happened to be the world’s first orbital launch attempt of a rocket fueled by methane, beating the likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance to the pad. 

Zhuque 2 couldn't quite reach orbit however. The first stage performed well, but an issue affecting the second stage meant the 14 satellites it was carrying failed to reach orbital speeds and fell into the ocean. The mission however is a milestone for private Chinese rockets with more liquid and reusable launches set to follow in the near future.

Read more: China's launch of world's 1st methane-fueled orbital rocket fails, 14 satellites lost

Europe's Vega C rocket fails during second stage

An Arianespace Vega C rocket launches from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, carrying two Earth-observation satellites for Airbus' Pléiades Neo constellation on Dec. 20, 2022. The mission failed shortly after liftoff.

An Arianespace Vega C rocket launches from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, carrying two Earth-observation satellites for Airbus' Pléiades Neo constellation on Dec. 20, 2022. The mission failed shortly after liftoff. (Image credit: Arianespace)

The second-ever launch of Europe's new Vega C rocket was intended to carry two satellites into orbit for Airbus' Pléiades Neo Earth-imaging constellation on its Dec. 20 launch from Kourou, French Guiana. While the rocket's first stage performed as planned, its second stage, the Zefiro 40, encountered an anomaly less than three minutes into the mission.

"Approximately 2 minutes and 27 seconds after liftoff an anomaly occurred on the Zefiro 40, thus ending the Vega C mission," representatives of Arianespace said in a statement. Range safety officials terminated the flight shortly thereafter, and the vehicle and its payload fell into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Vega C is a larger, more powerful version of the European Space Agency's Vega rocket. The 115-foot-tall (35 meters) Vega C can loft payloads of up to 5,070 pounds (2,300 kilograms) into a 435-mile-high (700 kilometers) sun-synchronous orbit.

Read more: Europe's Vega C rocket fails on 2nd-ever mission, 2 satellites lost

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Andrew Jones
Contributing Writer

Andrew is a freelance space journalist with a focus on reporting on China's rapidly growing space sector. He began writing for Space.com in 2019 and writes for SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, New Scientist and others. Andrew first caught the space bug when, as a youngster, he saw Voyager images of other worlds in our solar system for the first time. Away from space, Andrew enjoys trail running in the forests of Finland. You can follow him on Twitter @AJ_FI (opens in new tab).