ORLANDO, Florida -- After going 0-for-2 from Florida with its Rocket 3 design, Astra Space is shelving the model to focus on its future larger rocket plans, but that decision could mean NASA has to hunt for a new ride for its remaining hurricane-tracking satellites that Astra was supposed to launch.
Rocket 3.3 did manage two successful orbital launches from the company’s other launch pad in Alaska, but its two attempts from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station ended without being able to stick the satellite payloads into orbit.
The first Space Coast launch was in February, an attempt by the Alameda, California-based company to satisfy a $3.9 million award as part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 contract, designed to give incentive to new rocket companies to pursue successful launch vehicles. While it managed to launch without issue from Canaveral, the second stage had issues separating, and a video stream during flight last showed the rocket spinning end over end in space. The rocket and the four small satellites it was carrying for U.S. universities as well as NASA’s Johnson Space Center burned up in the atmosphere.
Although it was able to solve that launch issue and managed a successful orbital launch from Alaska in March, things did not go as planned when it came back to Cape Canaveral in June for what was supposed to be three quick launches as part of an awarded $7.8 million contract within two months to put six NASA hurricane-tracking satellites dubbed TROPICS into space. TROPICS stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats.
The June 12 launch went awry with the second stage once again the culprit, this time running out of fuel and shutting down, failing to put its payload of the first two TROPICS satellites into the desired orbit.
In the wake of the failure, NASA officials in mid-June stated their willingness to stick with Astra, noting the TROPICS mission could still satisfy its goals as long as all four of the remaining six satellites made it into orbit properly.
But at the Aug. 4 quarterly earnings meeting for Astra, company leaders announced they were killing further development of the Rocket 3 design. Instead, Astra would focus efforts on Rocket 4 saying in a press release the company “will transition to the next version of its launch system and is working with customers to re-manifest all payloads onto the new launch system, designed for higher capacity, reliability, and production rate.”
The larger design, doubling the payload capacity of Rocket 3, is targeting the ability to service the sundry commercial internet constellations in the works similar to SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.
“We have increased the design point of our new launch system to deliver up to [1322 pound] satellites to mid-inclination low-Earth orbit over the course of the product lifecycle, which we believe will allow us to service over 75% of the small satellite market,” said Astra cofounder, chairman and CEO Chris Kemp during an earnings call.
The company stated it intends to keep costs to under $5 million per launch.
The move away from Rocket 3, though, leaves NASA’s remaining four TROPICS satellites without an immediate ride. All six satellites were supposed to have been placed into orbit before the end of July.
Kemp said on the earnings call that Astra offered NASA flights on Rocket 4 and its related updated ground systems, called Launch System 2.0, to finish the contracted mission.
“To be clear, we are deeply disappointed by this outcome. We’ve been working closely with NASA and the FAA to investigate the failure, and we will share all of our findings once the investigation is concluded,” Kemp said. “Furthermore, we’re in discussion with NASA to proceed with TROPICS on Launch System 2.0. On behalf of the entire team I want to thank NASA for their continued partnership so we remain committed to successfully completing this mission.”
But Astra has killed plans for any flights in 2022, and put into question whether it would be ready in 2023 as well.
“We’re increasing investment in qualification and testing, which will add additional time and test flights to our schedule prior to resuming commercial launch operations,” he said, “meaning that whether we’ll be able to commence commercial launch operations in 2023 will depend on the success of our test flights.”
According to spacenews.com, though, an official speaking at a NASA town hall meeting on Monday at the Small Satellite Conference being held this week at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, said NASA was working to find an alternative ride.
“We are still looking for a ride and, once the ride is found, we’ll launch it,” said Sachidananda Babu, a program manager in NASA’s Earth science division.
Spacenews also reported that on Aug. 2, the director of that division, Karen St. Germain, said at the division’s Earth Science Advisory Committee that she was working with NASA’s Launch Services Program run out of Kennedy Space Center seeking options to finish the TROPICS mission.
While Astra won the launch contract for $7.95 million, the cost to obtain the scientific objectives of TROPICS comes to $30.2 million, according to a statement provided to the Sentinel by NASA’s Tylar Greene, the public affairs officer with the Earth Science Division when asked about the costs associated with the June launch failure.
The overall costs include the design, development, delivery, and operation of the constellation for one year, he stated.
“As with many of our launch providers, they have unsuccessful launches. They correct any issues through system engineering and return to flight; this is no different for Astra,” Greene said. “The contract with Astra sets out the period of performance and any penalties for delays in meeting the requirements of the launch window. NASA chose Astra Space for the TROPICS mission because the company met all the mission requirements, with the most competitive offering of all the bids submitted, given the evaluation criteria contained within the solicitation.”