Exos Aerospace Finds Cause of Launch Failure, Targets Next Liftoff for 2020

Exos Aerospace's Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with Guidance (SARGE) sounding rocket shortly after launch but before failure, on Oct. 26, 2019.
Exos Aerospace's Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with Guidance (SARGE) sounding rocket shortly after launch but before failure, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Image credit: Exos Aerospace)

After refining its suborbital sounding rocket across multiple launches, Exos Aerospace has found the cause of its October launch failure, according to the company's co-founder.

The Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with Guidance (SARGE) sounding rocket (which flies high in the atmosphere) crashed minutes after it lifted off from Spaceport America in New Mexico on Oct. 26. Now, we know what went wrong: A composite part just below the nose cone failed, causing the nose cone to slide down into the rocket, John Quinn, Exos Aerospace's co-founder and chief operating officer, told Space.com. The booster then flew nearly horizontally, beyond any hope of recovery, he said. 

"What's really interesting is, the component that failed was one that we replaced," Quinn said. The replacement was made based on data gathered during the company's third launch, which was successful. But engineers saw some moderate signs of stress in the composite part, so they decided to put in a new piece for the fourth launch.

Video: Watch Exos Aerospace's SARGE Rocket Launch Failure
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Clearly, that replacement didn't go according to plan. "We don't know whether it was a buckling failure or a weld crack; we don't have any data to prove it," Quinn said.

But, as Quinn put it, the failure is "part of rocket science." Exos Aerospace is starting with suborbital launches to manage the risk of flight, gaining direct "lived experience" from these missions before shooting for higher and more ambitious orbital flights. Despite the recent failure, the company is already targeting another launch date for the first quarter of 2020, depending on the progress of the redesign and certain external matters, such as the renewal of its government launch license.

Exos Aerospace was founded in 2014 using some of the same technologies and people that underpinned the Ansari X Prize competitor Armadillo Aerospace, which is no longer active. (The Ansari X Prize was a competition to fly the first private spacecraft twice in space, which Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne accomplished in 2004.) Quinn said Exos is focused on building and flying hardware "on a regular basis" to design and test all parts. 

Over the long term, Exos wants to move away from ground launches and send more rockets aloft from midair. Eventually, the company plans to rely on a glider towed 1,000 feet (300 meters) behind an airplane. "We can carry the rocket away from the people, and guess what?" Quinn said. "[We] can now launch from international waters, not putting people on the ground at risk."

Exos is also establishing high-tech apprenticeships in reusable space technology in international locations, with a program already active in Italy. The company announced plans for another branch in south Australia days ago that includes a provision for launch locations for both vertical and horizontal (plane-based) launches.

Eventually, the company hopes to fly missions that can test biotechnology in space for medical applications.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace