California-based Astra on Sunday launched two shoebox-size NASA satellites from Cape Canaveral in a modest mission to improve hurricane forecasts, but the second stage of the company’s low-cost booster malfunctioned before reaching orbit and the payloads were lost.
“The upper stage shut down early and we did not deliver the payloads to orbit,” Astra tweeted. “We have shared our regrets with @NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full data analysis.”
It was the seventh launch of Astra’s small “Venture-class” rocket and the company’s fifth failure. Sunday’s launch was the first of three planned for NASA to launch six small CubeSats, two at a time, into three orbital planes.
Given the somewhat risky nature of relying on tiny shoebox-size CubeAats and a rocket with a very short track record, the $40 million project requires just four satellites and two successful launches to meet mission objectives.
The NASA contract calls for the final two flights by the end of July. Whether Astra can meet that schedule given Sunday’s failure is not yet known.
“Although today’s launch with @Astra did not go as planned, the mission offered a great opportunity for new science and launch capabilities,” tweeted NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen.
Sunday’s launching came and hour and 43 minutes late, primarily to ensure the booster’s load of liquid oxygen propellant was at the proper temperature. Finally, hoping to chalk up the company’s third successful flight to orbit, Astra engineers counted down down to liftoff at 1:43 p.m. ET.
With its five first-stage engines generating 32,500 pounds of thrust, the 43-foot-tall Rocket 3.3 roared away from pad 46 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, putting on a dramatic show for area residents and tourists enjoying a sunny day on nearby beaches.
The first stage boosted the payload out of the lower atmosphere, handing off to the single engine powering the rocket’s upper stage.
All appeared to be going smoothly when, about a minute before the second stage engine was expected to shut down, an onboard “rocketcam” showed a flash in the engine’s exhaust plume. The camera view them showed what appeared to be a tumble before video from the rocket cut off.