Low-cost Astra rocket suffers upper stage failure, two NASA satellites lost

California-based Astra launched two shoebox-sized NASA satellites from Cape Canaveral on Sunday in a modest mission to improve hurricane forecasts, but the second stage of the company’s low-cost booster malfunctioned before reaching orbit and the loads were lost.

“The top stage was shut down prematurely and we did not put the payloads into orbit,” Astra tweeted. “We have shared our regrets with @NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full data analysis.”

It was the seventh launch of Astra’s small “Venture-class” rocket and the company’s fifth failure. Sunday’s launch was the first of three planned launches for NASA to launch six small CubeSats, two at a time, in three orbital planes.

Given the somewhat risky nature of relying on tiny shoebox-sized CubeAats and a very short-track rocket, the $40 million project will require just four satellites and two successful launches to accomplish its mission objectives.

Astra’s Rocket 3.3 takes off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Sunday with two small NASA satellites designed to track tropical storms and hurricanes.

Astra/NASASpaceflight Webcast

The NASA contract foresees the last two flights by the end of July. Whether Astra can meet that schedule given the cancellation of Sunday is not yet known.

“While today’s launch with @Astra didn’t go as planned, the mission presented a great opportunity for new science and launch opportunities,” tweeted NASA head of science Thomas Zurbuchen.

Sunday’s launch came and was an hour and 43 minutes late, mainly to ensure the booster’s charge of liquefied oxygen was at the right temperature. Finally, hoping to write the company’s third successful flight to orbit, Astra engineers counted down to launch at 1:43 p.m. ET.

With its five first stage engines generating 32,500 pounds of thrust, the 43-foot-tall Rocket 3.3 roared away from pad 46 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, putting on a dramatic show for local residents and tourists enjoying a sunny day at the Cape. nearby beaches.

The first stage increased payload from the lower atmosphere and was transferred to the single motor that powers the rocket’s upper stage.

Everything seemed to be running smoothly when, about a minute before the second stage’s engine was expected to shut down, an onboard “rocketcam” showed a flash in the engine’s exhaust plume. The camera image of them showed what appeared to be a tumble before the video clipped off the rocket.

A rocket camera on the side of the booster’s upper stage shows a sudden change in the engine’s exhaust plume (left), signaling a premature shutdown, as flight controllers at Astra’s Alameda, California control center look on. The payload with two satellites was lost.

Astra/NASASpaceflight Webcast

The goal of NASA’s TROPICS mission is to track the development of tropical storms in near real time by flying over hurricanes and other large systems every 45 to 50 minutes and returning temperature profiles, precipitation, water vapor and cloud ice.

That rapid return capability, that is, the time between satellite passes over a particular storm system, is intended to help scientists better understand how major storms develop and to help forecasters better predict a storm’s track and intensity.

“Measuring hurricanes from space is really hard to do because they’re very dynamic, they change on minute timescales, you have to spatially resolve all the features of the storm, the eyes, the rain bands,” said William Blackwell, principal investigator of the TROPICS mission at MIT.

“Today we might have four or six hours before the next satellite flies over. With this Cubesat constellation of six satellites … we can fly over about every hour. We’ll see how the storm changes, better predict how it might intensify. What what we’re trying to do is improve our forecasting ability.”

NASA will pay $8 million for three Astra launches and about $32 million for development and testing of the Cubesats and a year’s worth of data analysis.

The TROPICS mission represents more engineering risk than NASA usually accepts — Cubesats, while relatively inexpensive, have little redundancy and Astra’s Rocket 3.3 has yet to show reliable performance — but officials say the potential scientific payoff justifies a “high-risk, high-impact.” “. “project.

“I like TROPICS just because it’s a bit of a crazy mission,” Zurbuchen said last week. “Think of six cubesats…looking at tropical storms with a return time of 50 minutes instead of 12 hours.”

After Sunday’s failure, he tweeted: “Even though we’re disappointed now, we know there’s value in taking risks in our overall NASA Science portfolio because innovation is required to lead.”

While the NASA contract covers six Cubesats and their launchers, only four have to work to meet the contract requirements. In that case, Blackwell said, visiting times would be on the order of one hour. If all six were in operation, the gap between observations would be 45 to 50 minutes.

Placing TROPICS on what NASA calls a Venture-class rocket with a short track record made sense from NASA’s perspective.

“You’re always nervous with any launch, no matter what the vehicle is,” Blackwell said. But in this case, “we built resilience to tolerate this kind of new capability. So it’s a good match between our robust mission with six satellites, and we only need four, and this new capability of lower cost, fast cadence.” launch.”

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