ARCADIA, Calif. — An Astra launch of two NASA cubesats to monitor tropical storms failed June 12 when the rocket’s upper stage shut down prematurely.
Astra’s Rocket 3.3 vehicle, designated LV0010, lifted off from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 1:43 p.m. Eastern Time. The liftoff occurred near the end of a two-hour window that opened at 12:00 a.m. Eastern Time after an initial launch attempt was aborted less than two minutes before liftoff in due to a problem with the condition of the vehicle’s liquid oxygen propellant.
The launch initially proceeded as planned, with the first stage firing for three minutes, followed by engine shutdown, payload fairing deployment, and stage separation. The upper stage engine ignited for a burn expected to last 5 minutes and 15 seconds, according to a mission timeline released by the company.
However, approximately four minutes into this burn, rocket video briefly showed a plume from the engine, after which the vehicle appeared to fall. The scheduled time of the engine shutdown and the deployment of the rocket payload of two cubesats passed in silence.
The company quickly recognized a failure of the mission. “We had a nominal first leg flight. The upper stage shut down early and we did not deliver the payloads to orbit,” the company said. tweeted. “We have shared our regrets with NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full review of the data.
The failure is the second in three launch attempts for Astra this year. Another launch for NASA, also conducted from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 10, failed when the payload fairing failed to separate, a problem the company attributed to a flaw in the system’s wiring diagram. separation. The company resumed flight on March 15, placing its first customer payloads into orbit during a launch from Kodiak Island, Alaska. The company has only successfully reached orbit on two of its first seven launches.
This launch was the first of three for NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) constellation, a set of six three-unit cubesats that carry microwave radiometers to measure temperature and precipitation in tropical storm systems. The full constellation of six satellites would have provided revisit times of less than an hour, allowing scientists to better track the formation of such storms, although the mission could still achieve its science goals with four satellites.
The six TROPICS satellites would launch two at a time on three Astra rockets, each in different orbital planes. The mission’s preferred orbits – an altitude of 550 kilometers and an inclination of 29.75 degrees – maximized the science they could produce, but drove a dedicated launch solution rather than launching them as secondary payloads .
“We have to go to a 30 degree inclined orbit and no one else really wants to go. The carpools are all going to sun-synchronous orbits or medium inclinations, so it’s very well targeted on a smaller vehicle with a very insertion where they can take us exactly where we want to go,” said William Blackwell, principal investigator for TROPICS at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, in a video about the mission.
NASA, however, acknowledged that it was taking a greater risk with this approach. It awarded Astra a contract worth $7.95 million for all three launches in February 2021, ahead of the company’s first successful launch.
“Even though we’re disappointed right now, we know it’s important to take risks in our overall NASA science portfolio because innovation is necessary for us to lead,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA for science, tweeted after launch failure.
“I am confident that in the future we will succeed in using this valuable launch capability to explore the unknown and give others the same opportunity to inspire the world through discovery,” he added.