Astra cancels Rocket 3 line after multiple launch failures
Astra plans to halt production of its current line of rockets following several launch failures.
The California-based company will instead focus on “the next version of its launch system,” a more powerful vehicle that will have higher reliability, capacity and production rate, Astra said. (opens in a new tab) Thursday (August 4).
“It was pretty clear that after two of the four flights we had flown, we hadn’t been successful,” Astra founder and CEO Chris Kemp said on a conference call with investors in reference to Rocket 3.3, the latest version of the now-cancelled Rocket 3 booster line.
Video: Watch Astra’s LV0010 rocket launch failure with NASA satellites
Most recently, Astra’s Launch Vehicle 0010 (LV0010) suffered a second stage failure after lifting off from a pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on June 12. Two NASA cubesats, the first of a fleet of six satellites designed to track hurricanes, were lost in the failure.
NASA chose Astra to launch these cubesats for the agency’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission. Astra is contracted to carry four more TROPICS cubesats across two launches under a $7.95 million contract for the company.
Astra said the company plans to transition all customers (including NASA) to its next-generation launch system, called Rocket 4. “We are in discussions with NASA to continue with TROPICS,” Kemp said.
Kemp stressed that the transition will take some time for customers and that Rocket 4 test launches will be in 2023 at the earliest. “We want to do multiple test flights, we want to test every component of the system, we want to test the motors, we want to test the stages, we want to test the software, we want to test the electronics,” he said. . .
The timeline for the move to Rocket 4, he added, will have “a lot of uncertainty, because we want to give the team time to do all of this testing before we do another commercial launch.” He urged that Astra engineers have “time to accomplish these milestones” and pledged to provide updates as needed.
At the same time, Astra is working to understand what caused the problem during the June 12 launch failure, together with NASA and the US Federal Aviation Administration. Kemp said the rocket performed a normal first stage flight and stage separation that day, but the upper stage had a problem that caused its engine to “starve out of fuel and shut down” prematurely. .
Including test flights and earlier versions, the Rocket 3 line has failed five times in seven launches, according to SpaceNews (opens in a new tab).
Another high-profile failure occurred Feb. 10, during a mission carrying four tiny cubesats for NASA’s Educational Nanosatellite Launch Initiative. The issue was later attributed to a payload fairing deployment issue, causing the second stage to fall, resulting in the loss of the satellites.
Astra has tackled the root causes ahead of its next launch, which saw several satellites successfully deployed on March 15 after launching from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island in Alaska. The company’s first successful orbital launch was during a test flight in November 2021.
Rocket 4 will have some design changes in its development before test flights take place in 2023 at the earliest. The payload capacity of the vehicle will be 1,320 pounds (600 kilograms), a big increase over vehicles previous Astras, and the upper stage engine has been upgraded to support this change.
“The feedback we were getting from some of the bigger constellation operators was that the satellites were getting bigger,” Kemp said of the design change. The latest version of Rocket 3, on the other hand, had a payload capacity less than a tenth of its successor, at 110 pounds (50 kg).
Pricing for a Rocket 4 launch is expected to be less than $5 million, Astra said in Thursday’s release.
Astra aims to offer a distinctive service in the crowded small satellite launch market using rockets it advertises as cost-effective, easy to transport and efficient. That said, a NASA official recently said the agency is reviewing its options for continuing with TROPICS launches.
“We had contracted with a new and innovative launch company, and we knew we were taking some risk. In this case, the risk didn’t pay off,” said Karen St. Germain, director of the NASA Earth Sciences, during an Aug. 2 Earth Science Advisory Committee meeting that SpaceNews attended. NASA is in discussions with partners, she added, “to determine what that path will be.”