Astra’s small, privately developed satellite launcher crashed shortly after takeoff from Alaska on Friday night on the company’s first attempt to reach orbit.
The startup launch company confirmed on Twitter that the flight ended during the rocket’s first stage of combustion, following a successful takeoff and initial climb from a launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
“It looks like we’ve gotten a fair amount of rated flight time,” Astra tweeted.
Astra released mission status updates on Twitter, but did not provide a live public video stream of the flight.
The 38-foot (11.6-meter) high rocket took off from Kodiak at 11:19 pm. EDT Friday (7:19 pm Alaska time; 0319 GMT Saturday). A few minutes later, Astra tweeted again to announce that the flight ended shortly after takeoff.
Headquartered in Alameda, California, Astra has developed a small two-stage launcher sized to put microsatellites and CubeSat into orbit. The launch on Friday evening was the Astra’s first attempt to reach orbit, but officials warned ahead of the test flight that the company was unlikely to reach orbit on its first attempt.
The take-off on Friday came after a series of launch attempts canceled in early August caused by technical problems and bad weather. Another launch attempt last month was canceled after a boat got lost in a limited offshore area near the launch site on Kodiak Island.
Astra canceled a flight attempt Thursday to evaluate data from a sensor, then proceeded with another countdown on Friday that culminated in the launch.
The launch vehicle flown on Friday, designated Rocket 3.1, was powered by five Astra-built Delphin main engines in its first stage. The kerosene-powered engines cumulatively generated approximately 31,500 pounds of thrust.
If the mission continued on Friday, an upper stage of the Rocket 3.1 would fire a single engine to try to accelerate into a 211-mile (340-kilometer) orbit, Astra officials said ahead of launch.
But Astra had modest expectations for her first flight of an orbital-class rocket.
Chris Kemp, co-founder and CEO of Astra, said in July that the company did not intend to hit a “hole in one” on the Rocket 3.1 test flight by making all the necessary milestones to climb into space and accelerate to orbital speed.
“We intend to do enough to ensure that we are able to enter orbit after three flights, and for us that means a nominal first stage burn and successfully separate the upper stage,” Kemp said in a conference call with reporters at the end. in July, before the first round of Rocket 3.1 launch attempts.
A tweet from Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist with ties to the launch industry, suggested that the rocket’s engines “shut down” about 30 seconds after takeoff.
Kodiak Island home videos shared on social media also appeared to show the rocket’s engines shut down prematurely shortly after launch. The rocket is then seen to explode on impact at the spaceport, presumably in an area cleared of personnel.
– Jennifer Culton (@CultonJennifer) 12 September 2020
Another video showing the Astra launch on Friday night from Kodiak. https://t.co/PGhnJQf7oK
– Stephen Clark (@ StephenClark1) 12 September 2020
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, tweeted a message of support to Astra on Friday night.
“I’m sorry,” Musk tweeted. “I’m sure you will understand that though. It took four launches to reach orbit. Rockets are tough.”
“Thanks Elon!” Kemp responded on Twitter. “Digging into the data so we can figure it out. Rocket 3.2 is ready to go …”
There were no customer satellites aboard the Rocket 3.1 test flight. If it carried a payload, Rocket 3.1 could carry 55 pounds (25 kilograms) of cargo into orbit, Adam London, co-founder and chief technology officer of Astra, said in July. London said Astra has a roadmap for more capable rockets, with the goal of building a launch vehicle to carry up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of payload into orbit.
In a more detailed update posted on the Astra website several hours after launch, officials wrote that the rocket’s guidance system “appears to have introduced a slight wobble into flight, causing the vehicle to drift from its planned trajectory leading to a commanded shutdown of engines by the flight safety system. “
“We haven’t achieved all of our goals, but we’ve gained valuable experience, as well as even more valuable flight data,” Astra said. “This launch puts us on track to reach orbit within two additional flights, so we’re happy with the result.”
Astra said Friday’s test launch was “the first flight of a rocket designed from the ground up for low-cost mass production and highly automated launch operations.” The entire launch system was implemented by six people in less than a week, something completely unprecedented.
Founded in 2016, Astra is developing its small satellite launcher using an iterative design process. London said the company places a high value on actual flight data and that the test flights will collect critical information for engineers to make improvements to the rocket if needed.
“While we are pleased with today’s result, we still have a lot of work to do to reach orbit,” Astra said after the launch on Friday. “Once we reach orbit, we will relentlessly continue to improve the economy of the system as we deliver the payloads of our customers.
“In the next few weeks, we will be looking closely at the flight data to determine how to make the next flight more effective,” Astra said. “Rocket 3.2 is already built and ready for another big step towards orbit. Thanks to our amazing team and their families, to all our supporters, and stay tuned for updates in the coming weeks. We’ll get back to the pad before you know it! “
Kemp said in July that Astra is developing a launch service that is “much cheaper” than other small launch companies, such as Rocket Lab. Astra says it will be able to launch small satellites at short notice for military companies and commercial US.
Rocket 3.1’s design was based on a launch vehicle called Rocket 3.0 that Astra sent to Kodiak earlier this year for a launch campaign that was part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s launch challenge. The DARPA Launch Challenge, run by the Pentagon’s research and development agency, was designed to incentivize the development of new reactive commercial launch systems in the United States.
The deadline for the first Astra mission under DARPA’s Launch Challenge was March 2nd. After several weather delays and other schedule shifts in late February, Astra refueled its Rocket 3.0 vehicle in Kodiak on the last day of the challenge on March 2.
But Astra canceled a launch attempt due to suspicious data from a fuel tank while pressurizing the rocket’s propellant system for takeoff.
This ended Astra’s attempt to win the DARPA Launch Challenge, but the company solved the problem and was preparing for another launch attempt with Rocket 3.0 later in March. However, a problem with a valve on the rocket led to an overpressurization which destroyed the vehicle as Astra was discharging propellants after a countdown.
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