‘Unwanted fire’ may have caused ABL Space Systems’ failed launch

ABL Space Systems may have figured out what went wrong during the first ever launch.

The two-stage RS1 booster crashed on Earth shortly after being launched from the Pacific Spaceport in Alaska on Jan. 2. 10, which brought a premature and fiery end to its debut orbital mission.

ABL quickly initiated an investigation into the failure in conjunction with the US Federal Aviation Administration. A week later, this detective work has already made significant progress, even finding out the possible cause – a fire in the RS1 avionics system.

Subject: History of missiles.

The first stage of the RS1 “suffered a complete loss of power” 10.87 seconds after liftoff, ABL explained in a Twitter update. (will open in a new tab) Wednesday (January 18). The rocket continued to ascend for another 2.63 seconds, reaching a maximum height of 761 feet (232 meters), but then fell back to Earth, hitting about 60 feet (18 m) east of the launch pad.

“Approximately 95% of the total mass of fuel was still on board, resulting in a massive explosion and overpressure wave that caused damage to nearby equipment and facilities,” the company said in a statement. Damaged gear included on-site communications equipment, as well as fuel and water storage tanks.

Debris from the crash scattered across the area in a 0.25 mile (0.40 km) radius and started a fire that destroyed ABL’s fabric hangar and much of the “integration equipment” it harbored, ABL writes in an update.

No one was hurt, as the affected area was cleared before launch in accordance with safety regulations.

The update notes that during the seven days of investigating the outage, the team uncovered several interesting “factual patterns.” For example, a few seconds after the launch, anomalous pressure and temperature jumps occurred in the aft cavity of the first stage.

“In addition, there are some visual signs of fire or smoke near the QD vehicle and engine bay after launch,” the update says. (QD presumably stands for “quick disconnect,” the interface connecting the missile to propellant or another service line.)

“Shortly before the loss of power, several sensors began to turn off in sequence,” the update says. “These data indicate that an unwanted fire has spread to our avionics system, causing the entire system to fail.”

ABL will verify this preliminary finding and, if confirmed, determine the cause of the fire.

While the investigation continues, the company is also repairing the launch pad and preparing for a second orbital launch attempt. Too early to speculate about the date of the next start; the timing depends on the results of the investigation of the anomaly, company representatives said.

ABL was founded in 2017 and is based in Southern California. The company intends to capture a significant portion of the small satellite launch market with the 88-foot (27 m) RS1, which is powered by nine ABL E2 engines in the first stage and one in the upper stage.

According to the ABL user manual, the rocket is capable of launching up to 2,975 pounds (1,350 kg) of payload into low Earth orbit. (will open in a new tab). The company currently charges $12 million for an RS1 mission and already has dozens of launches on its roster. For example, in 2021, ABL signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin to fly up to 58 missions through 2029.

Mike Wall is the author of Out There (will open in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrations by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or on facebook (will open in a new tab).

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