First Hawaii Space Launch Fails [Updated]

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The first attempted orbital launch from Hawaii failed this evening. The U.S. Air Force-led Operationally Responsive Space mission, ORS-4, launched the islands’ first space-bound rocket from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands on Kauai shortly before 6 p.m.

The SuperStrypi rocket was an experimental launch vehicle designed to provide a new, low-cost space launch platform. It’s main payload was a University of Hawaii hyperspectral imaging camera, but it was also carrying 12 other satellites. It should have taken only 13 minutes to reach orbital insertion, but about a minute into the launch, things appeared to fall apart.

The University of Hawaii was streaming live video of the launch, captured here by Grasswire. A ground-oriented camera aboard the rocket shows the craft start to spin faster and faster, and a real-time launch animation based on live telemetry briefly shows the SuperStryping tumbling haphazardly before the connection is lost:

 

Meanwhile, Mason Weitzel on Kauai (@racinmason23 on Twitter) was capturing the launch on his smartphone camera, his video showing a deflection and the apparent breakup of the rocket over the ocean:

 

Space geeks watching live and commenting on Twitter knew something had gone wrong, and almost an hour passed before any official information was released. The Air Force told SpaceFlightNow:

The ORS-4 mission on an experimental Super Strypi launch vehicle failed in mid-flight shortly after liftoff at 5:45 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time (7:45 p.m. PST; 10:45 p.m. EST) today from the Pacific Missile Range Facility off Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii. Additional information will be released as it becomes available.

As with any rocket launch mishap, the investigation will take some time to complete. But a few industry watchers pointed out that a 2014 test firing had shown a potential problem in the insulation of the rocket motors, prompting a delay from a scheduled January launch:

The test motor showed a burn-through of insulation lining the case, however, the first stage of the first Super Strypi had already been built to the specifications found to be susceptible to this burn-through condition. The issue could be easily fixed on new production motors, but the existing LEO-46 for the ORS-4 mission could not be repaired.

A risk assessment was conducted and all parties agreed to accept the added risk to this mission and go ahead with the first stage as is. This decision was made because the burn-through on the test motor did not compromise the motor case itself. The highest risk of burn-through occurs in the closing seconds of the first stage burn.

The mission was again delayed last week from an Oct. 29 launch date, which coincided with a Government Accountability Office report that questioned the Defense Department’s progress on “responsive launch” capabilities.

“The ORS-4 Super Strypi mission is the first launch of this type of launch vehicle,” an Air Force spokeswoman told Space News. “As such, and not unexpected, we are working through a few launch processing issues.”

Whatever happened, it’s a painful setback for the ORS program, which was developing the SuperStrypi and its rail launcher system to get up to 300 kilograms of payload into space for under $20 million. The U.S. Air Force was working with the University of Hawaii, which handled payload development and project management of the rail launcher and launch pad.

Other partners included the PMRF, Sandia National Laboratories and Aerojet Rocketdyne Corp.

UH published a press release just as the rocket engines fired, which read in part: “With this launch, UH has become one of the only universities in the world to have both satellite fabrication capabilities and direct access to space.” It included a beautiful Instagram video of the launch:

The first post-launch comment from any university affiliated outlet was on the Instagram post, with @uhawaiinews writing, “Bummer! Air Force confirms failure of Super Strypi launch from Pacific Missile Range Facility. Thanks @sandialabs! Too bad it wasn’t a success this time.”

In addition to the university’s 55-kilogram HiakaSat camera, the lost rocket was also carrying instruments from Montana State University, St. Louis University, Utah State University, NASA, and Pumpkin Inc.

“The University of Hawaii is pleased to support the State of Hawaii in becoming a low-cost gateway to space and to provide our students with real-world experience that will be invaluable as we train Hawaii’s aerospace workforce,” UH President David Lassner said in the release. And despite today’s setback, I hope this work continues.

UPDATEThe university has revised the press release linked above, removing quotes and details and acknowledging the “anomaly” during launch:

Despite the vehicle issue, the project is still a tremendous success for University of Hawaii. About 150 students worked on the payload, a hyperspectral imager called HiakaSat. All milestones for the payload were met and the students received real-world aerospace experience in building a sophisticated satellite.

Because of this project, there is now a rocket launch pad and rail launcher in place at Pacific Missle Range Facility and those assets performed well today. There are also tracking stations in place at Kauaʻi Community College and Honolulu Community College that are fielding requests for services from commercial agencies. UH students at multiple campuses, including the community colleges, are currently working on payloads for future space launches.

Hawaii and University of Hawaii are now considered players in the aerospace industry and this launch is just the start of launches from the 50th state.

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Images courtesy Mason Weitzel and U.S. Air Force.

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