Astra’s small satellite launcher returned to flight Tuesday and delivered an unspecified number of small satellites into orbit after a successful liftoff from Alaska, helping clear the way for a series of three launches for NASA in the coming months at Cape Canaveral.
The 43-foot-tall (13.1-meter) launcher, named Rocket 3.3, lifted off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, at 12:22 p.m. EDT (1622 GMT; 8:22 a.m. AKDT) Tuesday. Astra scrubbed a launch attempt Monday due to the threat of lightning at the spaceport.
The rocket’s five kerosene-fueled Delphin engines fired nearly three minutes to guide the launcher south from Kodiak Island. Then the rocket shed its payload fairing, or nose cone, and the second stage separated to light its Aether engine for a nearly six-minute burn to accelerate into orbit.
Astra officials quickly confirmed the rocket reached orbit less than 10 minutes after liftoff, but the company waited to declare success until ground teams began contacting the CubeSats deployed on the mission.
“We have just started to hear back from our customers’ payloads, and we have great news to report,” said Chris Kemp, Astra’s co-founder and CEO. “The payloads have started to communicate with ground stations. Our customers are calling us and indicating that their satellites are alive. They’re talking, which means they’ve been successfully deployed.”
U.S. military tracking data indicated the mission reached an orbit ranging between 292 miles and 333 miles (471-by-537 kilometers), with an inclination of 97.5 degrees to the equator.
“The flight was nominal,” Kemp said. “We were able to precisely deliver to the targeted orbit and inclination at orbital velocity.”
The mission’s customer was Spaceflight, a commercial launch broker and an arranger of rideshare launch services. Spaceflight said it had three of its customers flying on Astra’s Rocket 3.3 launch vehicle, designated Launch Vehicle 0009, or LV0009. Two of the customers were Portland State Aerospace Society and NearSpace Launch, while the third was undisclosed.
Portland State Aerospace Society’s payload, named OreSat0, is a student-built nanosatellite developed at Portland State University in Oregon. NearSpace Launch’s payload, named S4 CROSSOVER, remained attached to the Astra rocket’s second stage after entering orbit, testing communications instruments and gathering data on the space environment.
The launch of LV0009 marked Astra’s return to Kodiak Island, where the company based its first four orbital launch attempts. The first three test flights failed to reach orbit, but Astra successfully placed an inert payload into orbit for the U.S. Space Force in November.
That set the stage for Astra’s first mission with functional satellites on-board, which took off Feb. 10 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. But a problem during separation of the rocket’s payload shroud, followed by a software glitch on the upper stage, prevented the mission from completing its mission.
Astra said March 6 that the launch from Florida last month failed to reach orbit after the rocket’s payload fairing did not fully open nearly three minutes after liftoff.
The two halves of the clamshell-like nose cone on Astra’s rocket were supposed to jettison after shutdown of the vehicle’s first stage engines, revealing the rocket’s second stage and satellite passengers to continue the climb into orbit.
Astra said an investigation led by company engineers, with oversight from the FAA, revealed that the payload fairing’s five separation mechanisms fired in the wrong order due to an electrical issue. That led to unexpected movement of the fairing structure, causing an electrical disconnection that prevented the final separation mechanism from receiving its command to open.
On-board video from the rocket showed the payload fairing start to open, but the two halves never fully separated to fall away from launch vehicle. That meant the upper stage lit its engine while still inside the fairing.
In a separate issue, Astra said engineers discovered a software problem that caused the upper stage to begin tumbling after firing away from the first stage and malfunctioning payload fairing.
Astra said the root cause of the payload fairing separation failure was an error in an engineering drawing, which caused technicians to improperly install wiring harnesses on the fairing separation system. Testing did not detect the problem before launch.
The software problem was rooted in a vulnerability to a “packet loss” failure mode, according to Astra. ” A missed series of signals resulted in a chain of events, resulting in the upper stage’s inability to recover from its tumble,” the company said in a statement.
Officials updated the engineering drawing and modified the payload separation system wiring harnesses on rockets already built in Astra’s factory, and introduced a new test to detect similar issues in the future. Engineers also upgraded software to overcome the problem that paralyzed the steering system ion the upper stage.
“This has not been easy,” Kemp said after Tuesday’s launch. “We had a flight just over a month ago, and the team worked really hard every day, every weekend, many nights to quickly identify the issues we had on that flight, get another rocket back up to Kodiak, and fly it, and it was absolutely the right thing to do.
“I’m so proud of the team,” Kemp said. “I’m so grateful for our shareholders who’ve been patient with us, the customers who stuck with us and flew these these satellites just a few weeks later on this rocket and we couldn’t be more excited to continue to deliver for our customers.”
The LV0009 mission from Alaska was critical for Astra, which aims to eventually launch daily missions to carry small satellites into orbit for a range of customers, including the U.S. military, commercial companies, and NASA. With Tuesday’s flight, the company has successfully reached orbit in two of six tries.
After the LV0009 mission, Astra plans to return to Cape Canaveral for a series of three launches for NASA in April and May, carrying NASA’s TROPICS CubeSats.
TROPICS, a weather research mission, stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats. The mission will consist of six CubeSats flying in three orbital planes, with each Astra launch targeting a specific orbit in the constellation.
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