Rocket launch fails in attempt to launch satellites off the coast of Alaska

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

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 a problem or misstep, and the rocket “shutdown prematurely.”

“This is not the result we were hoping for today, but one that we prepared for. We will return with additional information as it becomes available,” the the company said in a tweet. “Thanks to everyone for their support.”

The mission aimed to carry two small satellites into 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 budding new industry: ABL is one of a long list of companies pursuing the same market — offering relatively cheap and easy access to launch services for operators of small satellites, which previously had to wait for additional space to open up aboard larger rockets.

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

At the core of the business model supported by companies such as ABL and Virgin Orbit is to offer frequent trips to space and make the process more responsive to the needs of small satellite companies, including those that essentially build massive constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit for a variety of purposes, for for example, offering space-based internet or monitoring the earth’s climate and resources.

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

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

In a crowded field, ABL hoped to join a short list of US-based businesses that have achieved 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 into orbit – in addition to receiving setbacks.

These companies may soon be joined by yet another new startup, Relativity, which currently has its first rocket ready for a launch site in Florida.

While all these rockets dedicated to launching small satellites are taking off, they face competition from larger rockets that have begun to provide 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 has so far launched six missions dedicated to small satellites for various customers.

The failed ABL launch on Monday comes after initial attempts to get the RS1 rocket off the ground in December fell short. The company worked through several technical issues, including a faulty sensor and a couple of pressure issues, to get the RS1 ready for Tuesday’s flight test.

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