Astra’s privately developed small satellite launcher crashed shortly after launching in Alaska on Friday evening on the company’s first attempt to reach orbit.
The startup launcher confirmed on Twitter that the flight ended during the rocket’s first fire after a successful launch and initial ascent from a launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
“It looks like we have a good nominal flight time,” tweeted Astra.
Astra posted updates on the status of the mission on Twitter but did not provide a live public video stream of the flight.
The 11.6-meter-high rocket launched from Kodiak on Friday at 11:19 p.m. EDT. A few minutes later, Astra tweeted again to announce that the flight ended shortly after take-off.
Astra, based in Alameda, California, has developed a small two-stage launcher that can launch microsatellites and CubeSats into orbit. The Friday night launch was the Astra’s first attempt to reach orbit, but officials warned before the test flight that it was unlikely the company would reach orbit on the first attempt.
The start on Friday took place after a series of start attempts at the beginning of August due to technical problems and bad weather. Another launch attempt last month was canceled after a boat strayed into an offshore restricted area near the launch site on Kodiak Island.
Astra broke off a flight attempt on Thursday to evaluate data from a sensor, and then proceeded with another countdown on Friday that led to takeoff.
The rocket, which was flown on Friday, called Rocket 3.1, was propelled on the first stage by five Dolphin main engines built by Astra. The kerosene-powered engines cumulatively generated about 31,500 pounds of thrust.
If the mission had continued on Friday, an upper stage on Rocket 3.1 would have fired a single engine to attempt to accelerate into 340 kilometers orbit, Astra officials said prior to launch.
But Astra had modest expectations for the first flight of an orbital-class missile.
Chris Kemp, Co-Founder and CEO of Astra, said in July that the company has no plans to get a hole-in-one on the Rocket 3.1 test flight by meeting all of the milestones needed to be in climb space and accelerate to orbital speed.
“We want to achieve enough to ensure that we can get into orbit after three flights. For us this means nominal burn in the first stage and successful separation in the upper stage,” Kemp said in a conference call with reporters in late July, before the first series of Rocket 3.1 launch attempts.
A tweet from Steve Jurvetson – a venture capitalist with links to the launch industry – suggested that the rocket’s engines “failed” about 30 seconds after launch.
Amateur videos from Kodiak Island shared on social media also revealed the rocket’s engines shut down prematurely shortly after launch. The rocket then explodes on impact with the spaceport, presumably in an area cleared of personnel.
– Jennifer Culton (@CultonJennifer) September 12, 2020
Another video shows Kodiak’s Astra launch on Friday night. https://t.co/PGhnJQf7oK
– Stephen Clark (@ StephenClark1) September 12, 2020
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, sent Astra a message of support on Friday evening.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Musk tweeted. “I’m sure you will find out. It took us four launches to reach orbit. Missiles are tough. “
“Thank you Elon!” Kemp replied on Twitter. “We dig into the data so we can find out. Rocket 3.2 is ready for use … “
There were no customer satellites on board the test flight Rocket 3.1. If it carried a payload, Rocket 3.1 could put 25 kilograms of cargo into orbit, Adam London, Astra co-founder and chief technology officer, said in July. According to London, Astra has a roadmap for more powerful missiles that ultimately aims to build a launcher that can put up to 150 kilograms of payload into orbit.
In a more detailed update posted on Astra’s website a few hours after takeoff, officials wrote that the missile’s guidance system “appeared to have introduced a slight vibration to the flight, causing the vehicle to deviate from its intended” Trajectory drifted, resulting in an ordered shutdown of the missile engines by the flight safety system. “
“We did not achieve all of our goals, but we have gained valuable experience and even more valuable flight data,” said Astra. “With this start, we are well on the way to reaching orbit within two additional flights. So we are happy with the result.”
According to Astra, the test launch on Friday 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 deployed by six people in less than a week – completely new. “
Astra was founded in 2016 and is developing its small satellite launcher using an iterative design process. London said the company places great emphasis on actual flight data and the test flights will gather vital information for engineers to make improvements to the missile if necessary.
“Although we are happy with today’s result, we still have to do more to reach orbit,” said Astra after the launch on Friday. “Once we are in orbit, we will relentlessly continue to improve the economics of the system as we deliver our customers’ payloads.
“In the next few weeks we will look closely at the flight details to find out how the next flight can be more successful,” said Astra. “Rocket 3.2 has already been built and is ready for another big step towards orbit. Thank you to our amazing team and their families, all of our supporters, and look forward to updates over the next few weeks. We’ll be back on the block before you know! “
Kemp said in July that Astra is developing a launch service that is “much cheaper” than other small launch companies like Rocket Lab. Astra says it will be able to launch small satellites for US military and commercial companies in the short term.
The design of Rocket 3.1 was based on a launcher 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, administered by the Pentagon’s Research and Development Agency, was designed as an incentive to develop new responsive US commercial launch systems.
The deadline for the first Astra mission as part of the DARPA Launch Challenge was March 2nd. After several weather delays and different schedules in late February, Astra refueled its Rocket 3.0 vehicle in Kodiak on the last day of the Challenge on March 2nd.
Astra, however, scrubbed a take-off attempt on suspicion of having data from a fuel tank while the rocket’s propellant system was being pressurized to take off.
That ended Astra’s attempt to win the DARPA Launch Challenge, but the company solved the problem and prepared for another launch attempt with Rocket 3.0 in March. However, a problem with a valve on the missile resulted in overpressure which destroyed the vehicle while Astra was draining propellant after a countdown test.
Email the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @ StephenClark1.