A rocket launch failed in an attempt to launch a satellite off the coast of Alaska

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A rocket operated by a California start-up crashed off the coast of Alaska on Tuesday, marking another disaster for companies hoping to offer their services to launch large numbers of small satellites into orbit.

Private 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 afterwards that there had been an “anomaly”, the aerospace term for a problem or misstep, and that the rocket had “gotten off prematurely”.

“This is not the outcome we were hoping for today, but we were preparing. We will return with additional information as it becomes available.” the company said in a tweet. “Thank you all for your support.”

The mission was intended to carry two small satellites into orbit for OmniTek, which recently spun off its space division. The company signed a contract 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 the fledgling industry: ABL is one of a long list of companies aiming for the same market – offering relatively cheap and easy access to launch services for operators small satellites, which in past years had to wait for additional space to open up on larger rockets.

On Monday, Virgin Orbit, ABL’s direct competitor trying to launch its first mission from the United Kingdom, admitted that its air-to-air rocket had failed to reach orbit.

The core of the business model backed by companies like ABL and Virgin Orbit is offering frequent rides into space and making 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 various purposes, such as providing space internet or monitoring the climate and resources on Earth.

These small spacecraft include SmallSats, which are about the size of a family’s 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 that are much smaller than SpaceX’s 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 start-up in the industry has suffered at least one launch failure.

In a crowded field, ABL hoped to join the short list of American ventures 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 – as well as suffered failures.

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

As all these rockets designed to launch small satellites take off, they face competition from larger rockets that have begun to provide certain services to the same market. SpaceX, for example, launched 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.

ABL’s failed launch on Monday comes after the first few attempts to get its RS1 rocket off the ground in December failed. The company has addressed several technical issues, including a faulty sensor and several pressurization issues, to prepare the RS1 for Tuesday’s flight attempt.

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