The 12 biggest rocket failures of 2022
Rockets need thousands of things to go right to reach space, but just one issue can bring things back down to Earth with a bang. This year has seen a record number of launch attempts, and so it is unsurprising that sometimes, things went wrong.
Despite the number of historic launches that did go well this year, there were of course those that either never made it to space or failed to deploy their payloads once they got there.
Below is a list of some of the biggest space mission failures suffered in 2022.
Astra rocket suffers catastrophic failure in 1st Florida launch
Astra, founded in 2016, is looking to secure itself a place in the launch market and looked to build on a successful flight of its Rocket 3 series in November 2021. However its Feb. 10 launch ended in a spin.
The two-stage LV0008 lifted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station today performed well initially, soaring high into the Florida skies, but an issue occurred around 3 minutes into flight. “That was fairing separation and stage separation,” was announced during the webcast. Those events occurred, but not the desired way. The fairings appeared not to separate until the upper stage engine ignites, blasting the two nose cone halves asunder but also leaving the stage in a rapid spin, as seen from the point of view of an onboard camera.
The event meant loss of the mission and four tiny cubesats on the ELaNa 41 mission for NASA.
Third failure in a row for iSpace’s Hyperbola 1 rocket
Back in July 2019 iSpace became the first Chinese private company to launch a rocket into orbit using its four-stage Hyperbola 1 solid rocket. Things have not gone so well since then, with two failures last year being followed up by a third consecutive launch failure.
The fourth Hyperbola 1 lifted off (opens in new tab) from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on May 13. All seemed well early on according to amateur footage (opens in new tab) but silence followed in place of a confirmation of launch success. The Beijing-based company confirmed the loss of the rocket and its payloads and in October revealed (opens in new tab)that the failure stemmed from an issue with the attitude control system. With no control over the direction of the rocket, a self-destruct command was activated.
Astra rocket suffers second failure, 2 NASA satellites lost
Astra suffered a second failure of 2022 on June 12 which cost the first two NASA TROPICS cubesats to study hurricanes.
“We had a nominal first stage flight; however, the upper-stage engine did shut down early and we did not deliver our payloads to orbit,” Astra’s Amanda Durk Frye, senior manager for first stage and engine production, said during live launch commentary.
This was the second failure of Astra’s Rocket 3.3, which prompted the firm in August to cancel the launcher and transition to a next-generation launch system called Rocket 4.
India’s new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle fails first flight test
India launched a new rocket named the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on India’s southeastern coast on Aug. 6, with the inaugural flight going well for the early stages, before hitting a snag on the fourth and final stage.
A sensor issue meant the upper stage failed to deliver its two satellite payloads into their intended orbit, meaning they could not be used. “The satellites were placed in an elliptical orbit in place of a circular orbit,” ISRO Chairman S. Somanath said in a video statement after the launch, explaining that the satellites’ closest approach to Earth was as close as 47 miles (76 km), meaning the atmosphere would very quickly drag them back to Earth. ISRO will investigate the issues and prepare for a second test flight of the SSLV rocket, Somanath said.
New Shepard suffers anomaly during launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket has gained attention with its tourist flights from Launch Site One in West Texas, sending up to six people at a time above the Kármán line — the unofficial boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and the beginning of space at 62 miles (100 kilometers) above mean sea level.
In August the rocket carried a sixth tourist mission but a Sept. 12 science-only mission did not go as expected. A problem occurred with the New Shepard booster a little before the mission reached an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,000 meters). The escape system worked as planned, jetting the capsule away from trouble and allowing it to descend safely to Earth under parachutes and be recovered safely, but the booster was likely destroyed. The rocket is now grounded while the FAA investigates the failure.
Firefly declares Alpha rocket launch success but satellites fall back to Earth
Firefly made its second attempt to launch the 95-foot-tall (29 meters) Alpha rocket on Oct. 1, lifting off from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base and successfully inserting three satellites into low Earth orbit. The launch appeared to go well and was a welcome bounceback after Firefly’s first launch in September 2021 ended in failure when one of its first stage engines shut down prematurely.
The firm had declared the launch a success, but the mission was another affected by the payloads being inserted into lower-than-intended orbits, and the satellites reentering the atmosphere already on Oct. 5, far earlier than desired. The company was however optimistic in the face of this, stating that they only need to make “very minor tweaks for our next mission.”
Scottish rocket startup Skyrora fails on 1st space launch attempt
Skyrora is one of a number of European launch startups aiming to reach orbit and plans to launch its Skyrora XL vehicle in 2023. As a step towards this, the firm attempted the launch of a suborbital rocket from the coast of Iceland Oct. 8 with the target of reaching an altitude of 77 miles (125 kilometers).
First launches are harder than others, however, and often provide lessons. The Skylark L rocket didn’t reach the heights it aimed for and shut down shortly after liftoff, falling into the Norwegian Sea about a third of a mile (500 meters) from the coastal site, company officials said. A new suborbital attempt could take place in Q2 2023, ahead of the planned orbital launch.
Japan’s Epsilon rocket fails during launch of tech-demonstrating satellite
Japan’s first and only launch attempt of 2022 saw an Epsilon rocket liftoff from the Uchinoura Space Center on Oct. 11 for a mission known as Innovative Satellite Technology Demonstration 3.
All seemed well after the first two stages but that webcast indicated that trouble seemed to arise around the time when the third stage was supposed to kick on. As a result, mission controllers activated Epsilon’s flight termination system, which destroyed the rocket.
North Korea’s most powerful ballistic missile fails
Space launch vehicles send satellites into orbit to monitor the Earth, send probes to the moon and deep space, and astronauts to space stations. Yet, they are very similar to rockets which can send bombs over vast distances via space. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and delivery system program often provides a reminder of this darker side, but a Nov. 3 test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is believed to have failed, according to reports.
A “South Korean government source said officials suspect it was a Hwasong-17, North Korea’s most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile,” CNN reported. The test failed, according to that source, who spoke anonymously to CNN.
China’s Long March 6A launches successfully but upper stage breaks up
China launched its second Long March 6A rocket—a first bundle of liquid-fueled core stage and solid side boosters—on Nov. 11, successfully sending the Yunhai 3 satellite into its intended orbit. All good then, apart from days later the upper stage that put the satellite in orbit suffered an event that turned the rocket stage into a shower of orbital debris.
Initially tracked as around 50 pieces, by December it had disintegrated into a cloud of 350 objects which could pose a threat to spacecraft in orbit for decades to come, adding to the generalized threat posed by space debris in low Earth orbit. Space faring nations take steps to prevent these events, but as with other aspects of launch, not everything goes well all the time.
China’s launch of world’s 1st methane-fueled orbital rocket fails
A number of commercial Chinese launch companies have sprung up since 2014 when China opened its space sector to private capital. So far, these firms have launched simpler, relatively small solid rockets. That changed on Dec. 14 when Landspace launched its Zhuque 2 liquid propellant rocket from Jiuquan, which also happened to be the world’s first orbital launch attempt of a rocket fueled by methane, beating the likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance to the pad.
Zhuque 2 couldn’t quite reach orbit however. The first stage performed well, but an issue affecting the second stage meant the 14 satellites it was carrying failed to reach orbital speeds and fell into the ocean. The mission however is a milestone for private Chinese rockets with more liquid and reusable launches set to follow in the near future.
Europe’s Vega C rocket fails during second stage
The second-ever launch of Europe’s new Vega C rocket was intended to carry two satellites into orbit for Airbus’ Pléiades Neo Earth-imaging constellation on its Dec. 20 launch from Kourou, French Guiana. While the rocket’s first stage performed as planned, its second stage, the Zefiro 40, encountered an anomaly less than three minutes into the mission.
“Approximately 2 minutes and 27 seconds after liftoff an anomaly occurred on the Zefiro 40, thus ending the Vega C mission,” representatives of Arianespace said in a statement. Range safety officials terminated the flight shortly thereafter, and the vehicle and its payload fell into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Vega C is a larger, more powerful version of the European Space Agency’s Vega rocket. The 115-foot-tall (35 meters) Vega C can loft payloads of up to 5,070 pounds (2,300 kilograms) into a 435-mile-high (700 kilometers) sun-synchronous orbit.
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