The low-cost Astra rocket suffers from failure in the upper stages, two NASA satellites lost

On Sunday, California-based Astra launched two shoe-sized NASA satellites from Cape Canaveral on a modest mission to improve hurricane forecasts, but the second phase of the company’s low-cost amplifier failed incorrectly before reaching orbit and payloads were lost.

“The upper stage was closed early, and we did not deliver the payloads to the runway,” tweeted Astra. “We have shared our apology with @NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a complete data analysis.”

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

Given the somewhat risky nature of relying on tiny shoebox-sized CubeAats and a rocket with a very short track record, the $ 40 million project requires only four satellites and two successful launches to reach mission goals.

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

Astra / NASAS Spaceflight webcast

The NASA contract requires the last two flights by the end of July. Whether Astra can keep that plan given Sunday’s failure is not yet known.

“Even though today’s launch with @Astra did not go as planned, the mission provided a great opportunity for new science and launch capabilities,” tweeted NASA’s science chief Thomas Zurbuchen.

Sunday’s launch came and hour and 43 minutes delayed, primarily to ensure that the booster’s amount of liquid oxygen propellant was at the correct temperature. Finally, hoping to find the company’s third successful flight in orbit, the Astra engineers counted down to departure at 1:43 p.m. ET.

With its five 32,500-pound thrust engines, the 43-foot-high Rocket 3.3 roared away from pad 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, setting up a dramatic show for area residents and tourists enjoying a sunny day nearby. beaches.

The first stage increased the payload out of the lower atmosphere, and handed over to the single engine that drives the upper stage of the rocket.

Everything seemed to go smoothly then, about a minute before the second-stage engine was waiting to shut down, a built-in “rocket camera” flashed in the engine’s exhaust pipe. The camera view of them showed what appeared to be a tumbling before the video from the rocket cut off.

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

Astra / NASAS Spaceflight webcast

The goal of NASA’s TROPICS mission is to monitor the evolution of tropical storms in near real time by flying over hurricanes and other major systems every 45 to 50 minutes and sending back temperature profiles, precipitation, water vapor and sky data.

The rapid re-visitability, ie the time between satellites passing over a given storm system, is intended to help scientists better understand how large storms develop and help fortune tellers better predict a storm’s track and intensity.

“Measuring hurricanes from space is really difficult to do, because they are very dynamic, they change on time scales of minutes, you have to spatially solve all the characteristics of the storm, the eyes, the rainbows,” said William Blackwell, chief investigator of the TROPICS mission MIT.

“Today we get maybe four or six hours before the next satellite flies over. With this Cubesat constellation with six satellites … we can fly over about every hour. We get to see how the storm changes, and could better predict how it can What we are trying to do is improve our forecasting ability. “

NASA pays $ 8 million for three Astra launches and around $ 32 million for the development and testing of the cube sets and one year of data analysis.

The TROPICS mission represents more technical risk than NASA usually accepts – cube rates, although relatively cheap, have little redundancy and Astras Rocket 3.3 has not yet shown reliable performance – but officials say the potential scientific gain justifies a “high risk and high impact” project.

“I love TROPICS, just because it’s a crazy mission,” Zurbuchen said last week. “Think of six cube sets … watching tropical storms with a repetition time of 50 minutes instead of 12 hours.”

After Sunday’s failure, he tweeted: “Even though we are disappointed right now, we know: There is value in taking risks in our overall NASA Science portfolio because innovation is necessary for us to lead.”

While the NASA contract covers six cube sets and their launch vehicles, only four need to work to meet the contract requirements. In that case, Blackwell said, return visits would be on the order of an hour. With all six in operation, the gap between the observations will be 45 to 50 minutes.

Putting 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 have built-in resilience to tolerate this kind of new capabilities. So there is a good match between our robust mission with six satellites, and which only needs four, and this new capability at lower cost, fast cadence launch.”