Astra plans to avoid production on its current rocket line following several launch failures.
The California-based company will instead concentrate on “another version of its launch system,” a far more powerful vehicle which will have an increased reliability, capacity and rate of production, Astra announced (opens in new tab) on Thursday (Aug. 4).
“It had been pretty clear that after two out from the four flights that people had flown, we weren’t successful,” Astra founder and CEO Chris Kemp said throughout a conference call with investors in mention of Rocket 3.3, the most recent version of the now-canceled Rocket 3 booster line.
Lately, Astra’s Launch Vehicle 0010 (LV0010) suffered a second-stage failure after lifting faraway from a pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on June 12. Two NASA cubesats, the initial of a six-satellite fleet made to track hurricanes, were lost in the failure.
NASA picked Astra to launch those cubesats for the agency’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission. Astra is contracted to transport aloft four more TROPICS cubesats across two launches in a $7.95 million deal for the business.
Astra said the business plans to transition all customers (including NASA) to its next-generation launch system, called Rocket 4. “We’re in discussion with NASA to proceed with TROPICS,” Kemp said.
Kemp emphasized that the transition will need time for customers and that Rocket 4 test launches will occur in 2023 at the initial. “You want to do several test flights, you want to test every element of the system, you want to test the engines, you want to test the stages, you want to test the program, you want to test the electronics,” he said.
The timeline for the changeover to Rocket 4, he added, could have “lots of uncertainty, because you want to give the time and energy to the team to accomplish all that testing before we do another commercial launch.” He urged that Astra engineers be allowed “time and energy to accomplish these milestones” and pledged to supply updates as warranted.
Simultaneously, Astra is attempting to know very well what caused the problem on the June 12 launch failure, in collaboration with NASA and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Kemp said the rocket a standard first-stage flight and stage separation on that day, however the upper stage had an issue that caused its engine to “go out of fuel and turn off” prematurely.
Including test flights and previous versions, the Rocket 3 line has failed five times in seven launches, in accordance with SpaceNews (opens in new tab).
Another high-profile failure occurred on Feb. 10, on a mission carrying four tiny cubesats for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites initiative. The problem was later traced to a payload fairing deployment issue, evoking the second stage to tumble, which led to the lack of the satellites.
Astra addressed the main causes before its next launch, which saw several satellites deployed successfully March 15 carrying out a launch from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. The business’s first successful orbital launch occurred throughout a test flight in November 2021.
Rocket 4 could have some design changes in its development before test flights proceed no sooner than 2023. The vehicle’s payload capacity will undoubtedly be 1,320 pounds (600 kilograms), a big increase over previous Astra vehicles, and the upper-stage engine has been upgraded to aid that change.
“The feedback that people were consistently getting from a few of the larger constellation operators was that satellites were consistently getting larger,” Kemp said of the look change. The most recent version of Rocket 3, in comparison, had a payload capacity significantly less than a tenth of its successor, at 110 pounds (50 kg).
The purchase price for a Rocket 4 launch is likely to be significantly less than $5 million, Astra said in Thursday’s statement.
Astra aims to provide a unique service in the crowded small-satellite launch market using rockets that it advertises as cost-effective, an easy task to transport and efficient. Nevertheless, a NASA official recently said the agency is examining its options to keep TROPICS launches.
“We’d contracted with a fresh and innovative launch company, and we knew we were taking some risk. In this instance, the chance didnt pay back,” Karen St. Germain, director of NASAs Earth Science Division, said at an Aug. 2 Earth Science Advisory Committee meeting that SpaceNews attended. NASA is in discussions with partners, she added, “to determine what that path forward will undoubtedly be.”
Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is really a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to greatly help others explore the universe. Elizabeth’s on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from the simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada’s Carleton University. Elizabeth can be a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got thinking about space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, but still really wants to be an astronaut someday.