The third try wasn’t the charm for Astra.
The California Bay Area startup attempted its third orbital test flight today (Aug. 28), sending its two-stage Launch Vehicle 0006 skyward from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska’s Kodiak Island at 6:35 p.m. EDT (2235 GMT). The rocket suffered an anomaly about 2.5 minutes after liftoff, however, and the flight was terminated.
Something appeared to be wrong from the beginning, as Launch Vehicle 0006 lurched sideways at the moment of liftoff rather than rise smoothly off the pad. But the rocket recovered and soared high into the Alaska sky, reaching an altitude of about 20.5 miles (33 kilometers) before shutting down, according to real-time data Astra provided during a webcast of the launch.
The mission was terminated right around “max q,” the point when the mechanical stresses on a rocket are highest. A camera mounted on Launch Vehicle 0006 appeared to show a piece of the booster breaking loose around that time.
“Although we did not achieve our primary objective today, our team will work hard to determine what happened here,” Carolina Grossman, director of product management at Astra, said during today’s launch webcast. “And as we dig into the flight data, we are optimistic about the future and our next attempt.”
The 43-foot-tall (13 meters) Launch Vehicle 0006, a member of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 series, carried a test payload for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program today. That payload was a mass simulator, not an operational satellite, so it was not meant to be deployed.
Astra originally tried to launch this mission on Friday (Aug. 27), but Launch Vehicle 0006’s guidance system called an abort shortly after engine ignition. Engineers troubleshot the problem, which turned out to be an engine-configuration issue, and got the booster ready for liftoff a day later.
Big plans for small rockets
Astra, which was founded in 2016, aims to claim a big share of the growing small-satellite launch market with its line of mass-produced, low-cost, ever-evolving rockets. The company’s launch system is designed to be highly mobile and responsive. Its rockets, for example, are transported to the launch site in standard shipping containers.
“In many ways, the engineering that goes into a car is more than what goes into a rocket. But they’re able to make cars for tens of thousands of dollars,” Astra co-founder and chief technology officer Adam London said in a Q&A that the company posted online Friday.
“You don’t find any rockets today that are that affordable,” London said. “Astra was put together to figure out how you bridge that gap: how you make lots of rockets, so people can leverage easier and faster access to space to do great and interesting things.”
Astra had launched two orbital test flights before today, neither of which carried a payload. In September 2020, the company’s Rocket 3.1 suffered a guidance issue shortly after launch and came crashing back to Earth. In December of that year, Rocket 3.2 reached space successfully but ran out of fuel just before attaining orbital velocity.
The company spent some time upgrading its next booster variant, Rocket 3.3. Astra addressed the fuel-consumption issue and boosted the performance of the upper stage, London said during a webcast of Friday’s aborted launch attempt. The new variant is also 5 feet (1.5 m) taller than Rocket 3.1 and Rocket 3.2, he added.
Additional tweaks to Launch Vehicle 0006’s successors may be coming, based on what the company learns from its investigation of today’s anomaly.
Initial analyses show that one of the rocket’s five first-stage engines failed about 1 second after liftoff, for reasons that weren’t immediately clear, Astra co-founder, chairman and CEO Chris Kemp said in a short postflight briefing this evening.
As Launch Vehicle 0006 burned fuel during its sideways slide, it became light enough to be lofted by the remaining four engines, and the rocket began to climb, Kemp said. But 2 minutes and 28 seconds into the flight, the launch range issued an all-engine shutdown command, terminating the mission, he added.
“The rocket reached an altitude of about 50 kilometers [31 miles], and we returned back with no injuries or damage to any property and collected a tremendous amount of data from the flight,” Kemp said.
“It was obviously not successful at putting anything in orbit, but it was a flight where we learned a tremendous amount of obviously things we need to look into as we prepare to return to Kodiak and fly again,” he added.
Astra will make many trips to the launch pad in the coming months and years, if all goes according to plan. For example, today’s launch was the first of two booked by the U.S. Space Force; the second was expected to lift off later this year, though that timeline could end up shifting a bit.
Astra holds a number of other contracts as well: The company has signed deals for more than 50 launches that together represent more than $150 million in revenue, Kemp told Space.com last month.
Among those contracts are agreements to loft Earth-observing satellites for San Francisco-based company Planet next year, and to launch NASA’s TROPICS mission (which is short for “Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats”). TROPICS will study the formation and evolution of hurricanes using six cubesats, which Astra will launch over the course of three missions between January and July 2022 from the Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein Atoll, in the central Pacific.
And over the long haul, the company plans to ramp up its launch cadence to an unprecedented level, potentially transforming humanity’s access to space.
“Our next objective is monthly, then weekly, and finally daily space delivery,” London said in the Q&A.
“It’s a little nuts,” he added. “But if you have a satellite in orbit and it fails, you need to put another one back there quickly. Or if you want to launch a constellation of thousands of satellites, you don’t want to wait six months between launches. Our idea is by launching a few satellites nearly every day to precisely where they are needed, you can have a constellation deployed in a year or two, rather than five years.”
Astra, which became a publicly traded company this summer, is also developing its own satellite bus. These spacecraft will sport electric-propulsion engines built by Apollo Fusion, which Astra acquired earlier this year.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:45 p.m. EDT on Aug. 28 with details from a post-flight briefing held by Astra.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.