After a failed debut, space startup Astra may be able to attempt its second orbital test hit before the end of 2020.
The company based in California launched its first orbital test flight Friday night (September 11), sending his 12-meter-high Rocket 3.1 vehicle skyward from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island in Alaska.
At first everything went well with the launch. But then Rocket 3.1 began to deviate from course, prompting the launch controllers to command the engine to shut down for safety reasons about 30 seconds after takeoff. The booster dropped to Earth with a bang, exploding in a fireball visible to some observers on the ground.
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Preliminary analysis of the data suggests that the problem arose in Rocket 3.1’s guidance system, which “seemed to introduce some slight roll oscillations into the flight,” Adam London, co-founder and chief technology officer of Adam London, told reporters during a conference call on Saturday afternoon. Astra, Adam London. 12).
The fireball, while dramatic, was not dangerous, said Astra co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp, noting that Rocket 3.1’s flight termination system did its job as intended.
The two-stage booster is so small that there is no need for an onboard self-destruct system, he explained.
“Actually we can only cause the rocket to land safely inside a safe area by ordering the engines to stop, “Kemp said.” This is a very effective technique. And it means the rocket has no explosives or pyrotechnics on board, which makes it safer. “
It appears the help glitch was caused by a software glitch, London and Kemp said. This is good news if confirmed, suggesting the road back to the Astra launch pad won’t be particularly long or grueling, they added.
“We could have learned things that could have set us back six months or a year,” Kemp said.
Conversely, the requested changes “will likely involve a software update to our help system,” he added. “This is fantastic news, and I couldn’t be happier that we will probably arrive in Alaska before the end of the year with Rocket 3.2”.
Rocket 3.2 is almost ready to go. Final assembly and testing of the booster, which is very similar to Rocket 3.1, is underway at Astra’s Bay Area headquarters, London said.
Astra, founded in 2016, aims to successfully reach orbit within three attempts. Rocket 3.1’s performance on Friday night was encouraging, keeping the company on track to achieve that goal, Kemp said.
Thanks, @elonmusk. We appreciate this and are encouraged by the progress we have made today on our first of three flights on our route to orbit https://t.co/CrH8iBYNpS12 September 2020
In the long run, Astra wants to secure a sizable chunk of the small satellite launch market. That market is currently dominated by Rocket Lab, which offers little cats dedicated rides in orbit (as Astra plans to do), and SpaceX, which carries bantam spacecraft as “travel shares” on missions that load large primary payloads.
Astra aims to carve its niche with an affordable, flexible and highly responsive launch system. The entire Rocket 3.1 launch system, for example, was deployed by just six people in less than a week before Friday night’s test flight, Astra reps said.
“There aren’t enough launches going to enough destinations in the schedules required by this new generation of small satellite payloads,” Kemp said. “We are very excited to join Rocket Lab, SpaceX and other companies that are providing this new generation of satellites to help us better serve people here on Earth with new services to connect and improve our lives.”
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.