The first of three launches to deploy a fleet of six small NASA hurricane research satellites failed minutes after liftoff at 1:43 p.m. EDT (1743 GMT) Sunday from Cape Canaveral. The upper stage engine of Astra’s small commercial launcher shut down prematurely, leading to the loss of NASA’s first two TROPICS nanosatellites.
Astra held the countdown more than 90 minutes to resolve a concern about the conditioning of liquid oxygen on the rocket. Stormy weather held off to allow the rocket to launch during a two-hour window Sunday from Space Launch Complex 46, a commercial launch facility operated by Space Florida near the eastern tip of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
But the upper stage of the rocket shut down early at about T+plus 7 minutes, 21 seconds, about a minute shy of the engine’s planned burn duration.
The rocket that flew Sunday, called Rocket 3.3 or LV0010, is the smallest orbital-class launcher currently in service worldwide. It stands about 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall and weighs about as much as a small business jet when fully fueled.
The two TROPICS satellites were each about the size of a loaf of bread or a shoebox. They were crammed with miniaturized sensor technology that once needed to fly on a satellite larger than a refrigerator.
Microwave radiometers on each of the TROPICS satellites were designed to collect imagery, temperature and moisture data over tropical cyclones. With a fleet of satellites, the TROPICS mission will be capable of monitoring rapid changes in cyclones at a cadence of at least once per hour.
“Those are important variables because they can be related to the intensity of the storm, and even potential for future intensification,” said William Blackwell, principal investigator for the TROPICS mission from MIT Lincoln Laboratory. “So we’re trying to make those measurements with relatively high revisit. That’s really the key new feature that the TROPICS constellation provides, is improved revisit of the storms.
The fleet of TROPICS satellites is designed to collect data over hurricanes with a frequency of once every 50 minutes or so. NASA says it only needs four operational satellites, or two successful Astra launches, to achieve minimum mission success criteria. The other four TROPICS satellites are built and awaiting launch on future Astra rockets.
TROPICS stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats. The mission has a total cost of approximately $40 million, according to NASA.
Each TROPICS satellite, assembled by Blue Canyon Technologies in Colorado, weighs about 11.8 pounds (5.3 kilograms).
Astra aimed to release the two TROPICS satellites into an orbit about 357 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 29.75 degrees to the equator. The low-inclination orbit selected for the TROPICS mission will focus the satellite observations on hotspots for tropical cyclone development.
Founded in 2016, Astra aspires 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 the failure Sunday, the company has successfully reached orbit in two of seven tries.
Astra’s most recent flight in March marked the first time the company placed functioning satellites into orbit, following a liftoff from Kodiak Island, Alaska. The previous Astra launch in February, which departed Cape Canaveral, failed to place a payload of NASA-sponsored CubeSats into orbit.
NASA officials were aware of the risk of flying satellites on a new, relatively unproven launcher. TROPICS is part of NASA’s Earth Venture program, a series of cost-capped missions designed for Earth science research. NASA assumes more risk for Venture-class missions.
Astra’s first launch with two TROPICS satellites began with the ignition of Rocket 3.3’s five kerosene-fueled engines at pad 46. The Delphin engines propelled the launcher off the pad with 32,500 pounds of thrust, powering the rocket downrange to the east-northeast from Cape Canaveral.
First stage engine cutoff occurred three minutes after liftoff, followed by separation of the rocket’s payload shroud, which covered the upper stage and the TROPICS payloads during the climb through the atmosphere. Then rocket’s booster stage jettisoned to fall into the Atlantic, allowing the upper stage to ignite its small 740-pound-thrust for a planned five-minute burn to accelerate to orbital velocity.
Deployment the TROPICS satellites was scheduled at T+plus 8 minutes, 40 seconds, according to a mission timeline posted by Astra.
But the engine shut down about a minute early, before attaining enough velocity to each a stable orbit. The satellites and the upper stage were expected to fall back into the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles downrange from Cape Canaveral.
If the launch had been successful, the satellites were programmed unfurl solar panels to begin generating electricity, and ground teams would have run the TROPICS spacecraft through several weeks of tests and checkouts.
The second and third TROPICS launches — planned for late June and mid-July before Sunday’s failure — will aim to deploy the next four satellites into precise orbital planes, giving the constellation the proper spacing to enable regular flyovers of cyclones.
Going into Sunday’s mission, NASA officials said the satellites should all be collecting by August, just in time for the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, according to Will McCarty, NASA’s program scientist for the mission. The mission is designed for at least one year of science observations.
But the impact of the launch failure on the next two TROPICS launches was not immediately clear. It may take weeks or months for Astra to identify and correct the cause of Sunday’s failure.
Many CubeSats ride to space on rideshare launches, allowing operators to take advantage of lower costs by bundling their payloads on a single large rocket. But the TROPICS satellites need dedicated launches to reach their precise orbital destinations.
“We want to space out the spacecraft as much as we can, and want to keep them over the tropical cyclone belt,” Blackwell said before Sunday’s launch. “This overall configuration lets us do that, but it requires three separate dedicated launchers.”
Astra beat out bids from SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and Momentus, largely due to their lower-cost proposal, according to NASA. NASA is paying Astra nearly $8 million for the entire three-launch campaign.
ROCKET: Astra’s Rocket 3.3 (LV0010)
PAYLOAD: TROPICS-1 (two satellites)
LAUNCH SITE: SLC-46, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida
LAUNCH DATE: June 12, 2022
LAUNCH WINDOW: 12:00-2:00 p.m. EDT (1600-1800 GMT)
WEATHER FORECAST: 60% to 90% chance of violating weather constraints
BOOSTER RECOVERY: None
LAUNCH AZIMUTH: East-northeast
TARGET ORBIT: 357 miles (550 kilometers), 29.75 degrees inclination
- T+00:00: Liftoff
- T+00:06: Begin pitch over
- T+01:10: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
- T+03:00: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
- T+03:05: Payload fairing jettison
- T+03:10: Stage separation
- T+03:15: Second stage engine ignition
- T+08:30: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO)
- T+08:40: TROPICS deployment
- 7th orbital launch attempt by Astra
- 5th launch of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 configuration
- 2nd Astra launch from Florida
- 5th orbital launch attempt from pad 46
- 3rd Astra launch of 2022
- 24th orbital launch based out of Cape Canaveral in 2022
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