California-based Astra launched two shoebox-sized NASA satellites from Cape Canaveral on Sunday in a modest mission to improve hurricane predictions, but the second stage of the low-cost booster of the company malfunctioned before reaching orbit and the payloads were lost.
“Upper stage shut down early and we did not deliver payloads to orbit,” Astra tweeted. “We have shared our regrets with @NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full data analysis.”
It was the seventh launch for Astra’s “Venture-class” small rocket and the company’s fifth failure. Sunday’s launch was the first of three scheduled for NASA to launch six small CubeSats, two at a time, into three orbital aircraft.
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 only requires four satellites and two launches. successful in achieving mission objectives.
The NASA contract calls for the last two flights by the end of July. It is not yet known whether Astra can meet this schedule given Sunday’s failure.
“Although today’s launch with @Astra did not go as planned, the mission provided an excellent opportunity for new science and launch capabilities,” tweeted NASA Chief Scientist Thomas Zurbuchen.
Sunday’s launch was an hour and 43 minutes late, primarily to ensure the thruster’s liquid oxygen propellant charge was at the correct temperature. Finally, hoping to log the company’s third successful flight into orbit, Astra engineers counted down to liftoff at 1:43 p.m. ET.
With its five first-stage engines generating 32,500 pounds of thrust, the 43-foot-tall Rocket 3.3 rocketed away from Pad 46 at Space Force Station Cape Canaveral, providing a spectacular sight for area residents and to tourists enjoying a sunny day near the beaches.
The first stage increased the payload out of the lower atmosphere, switching to the single engine powering the upper stage of the rocket.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly when, about a minute before the second-stage engine was supposed to shut down, an onboard “rocket camera” showed a flash in the engine’s exhaust plume. The camera view showed them what appeared to be a fall before the video of the rocket was cut off.
The goal of NASA’s TROPICS mission is to monitor tropical storm development in near real time by flying over hurricanes and other major systems every 45 to 50 minutes and returning temperature profiles, precipitation, vapor water and cloud ice data.
This rapid revisit capability, i.e. the time between the passage of a satellite over a given storm system, is intended to help scientists better understand how major storms develop and to help forecasters better predict the path and intensity of a storm.
“Measuring hurricanes from space is really hard to do because they are very dynamic, they change on timescales of minutes, you have to spatially resolve all the features of the storm, the eyes, the rain bands” , said William Blackwell, principal investigator of the TROPICS mission at MIT.
“Today we have maybe four or six hours before the next satellite flies over. With this Cubesat constellation of six satellites… we can fly around every hour or so. We’ll see how the storm develops, we can better predict how it could intensify. What we’re trying to do is improve our forecasting ability.
NASA is paying $8 million for three Astra launches and about $32 million for the development and testing of the cubesats and a year of data analysis.
The TROPICS mission represents more technical risk than NASA usually accepts – cubesats, while relatively inexpensive, have little redundancy and Astra’s 3.3 rocket has yet to demonstrate reliable performance – but officials argue that the potential scientific gain justifies “high risk high impact”. ” project.
“I love TROPICS, just because it’s kind of a crazy mission,” Zurbuchen said last week. “Think six cubesats…looking at tropical storms with a repeat 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 as innovation is needed. for us to lead.”
While NASA’s contract covers six cubesats and their launch vehicles, only four need to operate to meet contract requirements. In this case, Blackwell said, visit times would be on the order of an hour. With all six in operation, the gap between observations would be 45 to 50 minutes.
Putting TROPICS on what NASA calls a Venture-class rocket with a short history made sense from NASA’s perspective.
“You’re always nervous with any launch, regardless of vehicle,” Blackwell said. But in this case, “we have built-in resilience to tolerate these kinds of new capabilities. So it’s a good fit between our robust mission with six satellites, and only requiring four, and this new capability at a lower cost, fast-paced launch.”