Astra launch falters during first stage burn

Astra’s Rocket 3.1 takes off from Kodiak Island, Alaska. Credit: Astra / John Kraus

Astra’s privately-developed small satellite launcher crashed shortly after liftoff from Alaska Friday evening on the company’s first try at reaching orbit.

The startup launch company confirmed on Twitter that the flight ended during the rocket’s first stage burn, following a successful liftoff and initial climb from a launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

“It does look like we got a good amount of nominal flight time,” Astra tweeted.

Astra released updates on the status of the mission on Twitter, but did not provide a public live video stream of the flight.

The 38-foot-tall (11.6-meter) rocket lifted off from Kodiak at 11:19 p.m. EDT Friday (7:19 p.m. Alaska time; 0319 GMT Saturday). A few minutes later, Astra tweeted again to announce that the flight ended shortly after takeoff.

Based in Alameda, California, Astra has developed a small two-stage launcher sized to loft microsatellites and CubeSats into orbit. The launch Friday evening was the Astra’s first try at reaching orbit, but officials cautioned before the test flight that the company was unlikely to achieve orbit on its first attempt.

The liftoff Friday occurred after a series of scrubbed launch attempts in early August caused by technical issues and poor weather. Another launch attempt last month was canceled after a boat strayed into a restricted offshore zone near the launch site on Kodiak Island.

Astra called off a flight attempt Thursday to evaluate data from a sensor, then proceeded with another countdown Friday that culminated in the launch.

The launch vehicle flown Friday, designated Rocket 3.1, was powered by five Astra-built Delphin main engines on its first stage. The kerosene-fueled engines cumulatively generated about 31,500 pounds of thrust.

If the mission had continued Friday, an upper stage on Rocket 3.1 would have ignited a single engine to try to accelerate into a 211-mile-high (340-kilometer) orbit, Astra officials said before the launch.

But Astra set modest expectations for its first flight of an orbital-class rocket.

Chris Kemp, Astra’s co-founder and CEO, said in July that the company did not intend to hit a “hole-in-one” on the Rocket 3.1 test flight by accomplishing all the milestones necessary to climb into space and accelerate to orbital velocity.

“We intend to accomplish enough to ensure that we’re able to get to orbit after three flights, and for us that means a nominal first-stage burn and getting the upper stage to separate successfully,” Kemp said in a conference call with reporters in late July, before the first series of Rocket 3.1 launch attempts.

A tweet from Steve Jurvetson — a venture capitalist with ties to the launch industry — suggested the rocket’s engines “cut out” about 30 seconds after liftoff.

Amateur videos from Kodiak Island shared on social media also appeared to show the rocket’s engines prematurely shutting down shortly after launch. The rocket is then seen exploding on impact at the spaceport, presumably in an area cleared of personnel.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, tweeted a message of support to Astra Friday night.

“Sorry to hear that,” Musk tweeted. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out though. Took us four launches to reach orbit. Rockets are hard.”

“Thanks Elon!” Kemp replied on Twitter. “Digging into the data so we can figure this out. Rocket 3.2 is ready to go…”

There were no customer satellites aboard the Rocket 3.1 test flight. If it was carrying a payload, Rocket 3.1 could deliver 55 pounds (25 kilograms) of cargo into orbit, Astra co-founder and chief technology officer Adam London said in July. London said Astra has a roadmap for more capable rockets, eventually aiming to build a launch vehicle to carry up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of payload into orbit.

In a more detailed update published on Astra’s website several hours after the launch, officials wrote that the rocket’s guidance system “appears to have introduced some slight oscillation into the flight, causing the vehicle to drift from its planned trajectory leading to a commanded shutdown of the engines by the flight safety system.”

“We didn’t meet all of our objectives, but we did gain valuable experience, plus even more valuable flight data,” Astra said. “This launch sets us well on our way to reaching orbit within two additional flights, so we’re happy with the result.”

Astra said Friday’s test launch was the “first flight of a rocket designed from the ground-up for low cost mass production and highly-automated launch operations. The entire launch system was deployed by six people in less than a week – completely unprecedented.”

Founded in 2016, Astra is developing its small satellite launcher using an iterative design process. London said the company places high value on actual flight data, and the test flights will gather critical information for engineers to make improvements on the rocket, as necessary.

“Although we’re pleased with today’s outcome, we still have more work to do to reach orbit,” Astra said after Friday’s launch. “Once we reach orbit, we will relentlessly continue to improve the economics of the system as we deliver our customers’ payloads.

“Over the next several weeks, we’ll be taking a close look at the flight data to determine how to make the next flight more successful,” Astra said. “Rocket 3.2 is already built and ready for another big step towards orbit. Thank you to our incredible team and their families, all of our supporters, and stay tuned for updates over the next few weeks. We’ll be back to the pad before you know it!”

Kemp said in July that Astra is developing a launch service that is “a lot more affordable” than other small launch companies, such as Rocket Lab. Astra says it will be able to launch small satellites on short notice for the U.S. military and commercial companies.

The design of Rocket 3.1 was based on a launch vehicle named Rocket 3.0 that Astra sent to Kodiak earlier this year for a launch campaign that was part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Launch Challenge. The DARPA Launch Challenge, managed by the Pentagon’s research and development agency, was conceived to incentivize development of new responsive commercial U.S. launch systems.

The deadline for the first Astra mission under DARPA’s Launch Challenge was March 2. After several weather delays and other schedule slips in late February, Astra fueled its Rocket 3.0 vehicle at Kodiak on the final day of the challenge March 2.

But Astra scrubbed a launch attempt due to suspect data from a fuel tank during pressurization of the rocket’s propellant system for liftoff.

That ended Astra’s shot at winning the DARPA Launch Challenge, but the company resolved the problem and was preparing for another launch attempt with Rocket 3.0 later in March. However, an issue with a valve on the rocket led to an over-pressurization that destroyed the vehicle while Astra was draining propellants after a countdown rehearsal.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.