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Satellite Launch Vehicle Bursts Into Flames Over Pacific Ocean Only Two Minutes After Lift-Off — Watch

An unmanned rocket, which was privately designed and built for carrying satellites, suffered an “anomaly” and was completely destroyed in a dramatic explosion over the Pacific Ocean.

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The incident took place off the California coast while the rocket was making its first attempt to touch the Earth’s orbit.

Firefly Aerospace conducted the first flight test of its Alpha rocket on September 2. According to a statement, “the rocket was terminated over the Pacific Ocean shortly after its 6:59 PM Thursday liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base”. San Luis Obispo Tribune, a news portal in California, shared a video showing the explosion.

“An anomaly occurred during the first-stage ascent that ‘resulted in the loss of the vehicle’ about two minutes, 30 seconds into the flight”, Firefly said in its statement. A team of investigators is working to determine the cause of this explosion, Vandenberg Space Force Base announced.

The rocket was carrying a payload called DREAM (Dedicated Research and Education Accelerator Mission). This included materials from schools and other institutions, comprising small satellites and various demonstration spacecraft.

“While we did not meet all of our mission objectives, we did achieve a number of them: successful first stage ignition, liftoff of the pad, progression to supersonic speed, and we obtained a substantial amount of flight data”, Firefly said. “The information will be applied to future missions”, it added.

Firefly said that “the rocket cleared the launch pad successfully, but about 15 seconds into the flight, engine 2 shut down. The vehicle continued its climb and was able to maintain control for about 145 seconds, but the climb rate was slow because it was lacking the thrust of one of its four engines (the one that shut down)”.

“The vehicle was challenged to maintain control without the thrust vectoring of engine 2. Alpha was able to compensate at subsonic speeds, but as it moved through transonic and into the supersonic flight, where control is most challenging, the three-engine thrust vector control was insufficient and the vehicle tumbled out of control”, Firefly said.

“The range terminated the flight using the explosive Flight Termination System (FTS). The rocket did not explode on its own”, it further explained.

Firefly Aerospace, an American private aerospace firm based in Austin, Texas, has been working on launching various space vehicles, including a lunar lander, for some time. The Alpha rocket was built to target the growing market for small satellite launches, Defense News reported.

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At a dedicated mission price of $15M, Alpha combines the highest payload performance with the lowest cost per kilogram to orbit in its vehicle class. Capable of delivering 1 metric ton to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 630 kg to the highly desirable 500 km Sun–Synchronous Orbit (SSO), Alpha will provide launch options for both full vehicle and ride-share customers.

The private aerospace firm is yet to catch up with two Long Beach California-based companies which are far ahead in the small satellite launch sector. One of them, Rocket Lab, has launched 105 satellites into orbit from a site in New Zealand. According to reports, the company is developing another launch site in the US.

The second company, Virgin Orbit, has reportedly put 17 satellites in space during two successful flights using its air-launched LauncherOne rocket. This rocket is released from the bottom wing of a modified Boeing 747. 

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