Astra’s first orbital mission took off from the ground, but was soon back down again.
The California-based spaceflight startup launched its own first orbital test flight tonight (September 11), sending its two-stage Rocket 3.1 skyward from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska at 11:20 pm. EDT (7:20 PM local Alaska time and 0320 GMT on September 12).
The 38-foot (12-meter) high booster, which carried no payloads, didn’t make it to the final frontier.
“Take off and fly successfully, but the flight ended during the first combustion phase. It looks like we got a good amount of nominal flight time. More updates to come!”
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Great shot of Rocket 3.1 leaving the pad! pic.twitter.com/g8uo6N2HQw12 September 2020
The failure was not a shock; debut flights rarely go well, and Astra had explicitly said she didn’t expect perfection on this one. In a description of the pre-launch mission, company representatives wrote that the main goal was to achieve nominal first stage combustion, which would keep Astra on track to reach orbit within three flights.
That didn’t happen, but it looks like the company will still have quite a bit of data to analyze before the next attempt. And Astra still aims to reach orbit in three attempts or less.
“We are thrilled to have made a lot of progress in our first of three attempts on our path to orbit! We are incredibly proud of our team; we will review the data, make changes and launch Rocket 3.2, which is almost complete,” Astra said. written in another tweet tonight.
We are thrilled to have made a lot of progress in our first of three attempts on our path to orbit! We are incredibly proud of our team; we’ll review the data, make changes, and launch Rocket 3.2, which is nearly complete. 📸: @johnkrausphotos pic.twitter.com/K0R7A0Q8wc12 September 2020
Astra plans to provide dedicated and affordable rides in space for small satellites, which are becoming more and more capable. The company’s website currently offers delivery services to a 500-kilometer (310-mile) orbit for payloads weighing between 110 pounds. and 330 lbs. (50 to 150 kilograms).
Another California-based company, Rocket Lab, has a stranglehold on this side of the growing baby launch market at the moment, but Astra thinks it can carve a sizable niche by offering a cheaper alternative.
“What we are trying to do is create a service that has a lower cost to operate and a lower cost to provide the launch service,” said Astra CEO Chris Kemp during a conference call with reporters on July 30. . cheaper rocket, a highly automated factory, a highly automated launch operation and, in reality, just a real focus on efficiency and cost removal from every aspect of the service so that you can reach scale and ultimately reduce costs through economies of scale and production. “
(SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and other large boosters are increasingly lifting small spacecraft as well, but generally as piggyback “rides” in missions whose primary purpose is to deliver one or more large satellites into orbit. Rocket Lab offers dedicated rides for small satellites, such as Astra plans to do the same.)
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
Astra originally planned to launch its first orbital mission in February or March of this year, as part of the $ 12 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launch challenge. But bad weather and technical problems with Rocket 3.0, the booster scheduled for that flight, prevented from the company from meeting the tight competition window.
The 3.0 rocket was damaged in late March, during preparations for another launch attempt not affiliated with the DARPA Launch Challenge. So the milestone of orbital takeoff fell on its successor, Rocket 3.1. Bad weather and technical issues have pushed Rocket 3.1’s flight back several times, until tonight.
Tonight’s launch was the third overall for Astra, which has attempted suborbital flights with two previous rocket iterations in 2018.
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.