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Rocket Lab Electron booster launch fails to reach orbit, 2 satellites lost

A Rocket Lab Electron booster carrying two commercial satellites failed to reach orbit Saturday (May 15) after suffering an anomaly just minutes after liftoff. 

The launch failure occurred less than three minutes after a launch from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, and just after the Electron's two stages separated. Two Earth-observing satellites for the company BlackSky, their flight arranged by the firm Spaceflight, were lost.

"An issue was experienced during today's launch, resulting in the loss of the mission. We are deeply sorry to our launch customers BlackSky and Spaceflight," Rocket Lab wrote in a statement on Twitter after the failure. "The issue occurred shortly after stage two ignition." 

Related: Rocket Lab and its Electron booster (photos)

A Rocket Lab Electron booster launches on the company's 20th mission, Running Out Of Toes, from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula on May 15, 2021. Telemetry from the rocket was reported lost 4 minutes after liftoff. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)

A camera mounted on the Electron's upper stage showed stage separation 2 minutes and 35 seconds into the flight, followed by what appeared to be a brief ignition and a sharp sideways motion before shutting down. Rocket Lab confirmed a loss of telemetry from the rocket four minutes after liftoff. 

Saturday's launch failure follows a failed launch in July 2020, which the company traced to a single faulty electrical connection. Rocket Lab's first Electron launch in 2017 failed to reach orbit due to a telemetry issue. Aside from those flights, Rocket Lab has seen 18 successful launches.

Rocket Lab launched the 58-foot-tall (18 meters) Electron booster at 7:11 a.m. EDT (1111 GMT) after just over an hour of delays due to high upper level winds. The mission was the company's 20th flight and nicknamed "Running Out Of Toes" to mark the milestone.

The first stage of the Electron did manage to parachute back to Earth after separating from the upper stage and splash down softly in the Pacific Ocean as part of Rocket Lab's reusability program, company representatives said in a statement today. A previous Electron made a similar splashdown in November 2020. 

The company is testing technology to guide Electron boosters back to Earth in order to ultimately catch them in mid-air by snagging their parachutes with a helicopter. The goal: reuse the boosters and their engines to lower the cost of spaceflight. 

This story was updated at 11:45 a.m. ET on May 15 with news of the first-stage booster splashdown.

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the Space.com team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.