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Startup fails on first launch as rocket explodes off Alaskan coast

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

Private company 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 “stopped prematurely”.

“This is not the result we were hoping for today, but the one we prepared for. We will come back with additional information when it becomes available,” said the the company said in a tweet. “Thank you all for the support.”

The mission was 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 while still operating as L2 Aerospace.

Tuesday’s attempt to launch ABL was the second failure in two days for a burgeoning new industry: ABL is one of a long list of companies pursuing the same market – offering relatively cheap and easy access to launch for operators of small satellites, which in past years had to wait for more space to open up aboard larger rockets.

On Monday, Virgin Orbit, a direct competitor to ABL attempting to launch its first mission outside the UK, admitted that its aerial rocket had failed to reach orbit.

The heart of the business model supported by companies like ABL and Virgin Orbit is to offer frequent trips into space and to make the process more responsive to the needs of smaller satellite companies, including those that essentially build massive constellations of satellites. in low Earth orbit. for various purposes, such as providing the Internet from space or monitoring the Earth’s climate and resources.

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

Startups are building rockets much smaller than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, for example. But so far, the new class of smaller rockets hasn’t proven to be as reliable as their larger counterparts. Almost every start-up in the industry has suffered at least one launch failure.

In a crowded field, ABL hoped to join a short list of US-based companies that landed at least one successful assignment. The first, in 2018, was Rocket Lab, which has more than two dozen successful launches and three failures to date. Startups Astra and Firefly have also delivered satellites into orbit – as well as setbacks.

These companies may soon be joined by another start-up, Relativity, which currently has its first rocket ready at a launch site in Florida.

While all these rockets dedicated to launching small satellites take off, they face competition from larger rockets that have started to provide certain services to the same market. SpaceX, for example, launched a SmallSat “rideshare” venture in 2019 with its heavy Falcon 9 rocket, and the company has so far launched six dedicated small satellite missions for various customers.

ABL’s failed launch on Monday comes after initial attempts to get its RS1 rocket into the air in December failed. The company fixed several technical issues, including a faulty sensor and some pressurization issues, to prepare the RS1 for Tuesday’s attempted flight.

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