Astra plans to stop production on its current rocket line 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 a higher reliability, capacity and rate of production, Astra announced (opens in new tab) on Thursday (Aug. 4).
"It was pretty clear that after two out of the four flights that we had flown, we were not successful," Astra founder and CEO Chris Kemp said during a conference call with investors in reference to Rocket 3.3, the newest version of the now-canceled Rocket 3 booster line.
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 six-satellite fleet designed to track hurricanes, were lost in the failure.
NASA picked Astra to launch those 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 aloft four more TROPICS cubesats across two launches in a $7.95 million deal for the company.
Astra said the company plans to transition all customers (including NASA) to its next-generation launch system, called Rocket 4. "We're in discussion with NASA to proceed with TROPICS," Kemp said.
Kemp emphasized that the transition will take some time for customers and that Rocket 4 test launches will occur in 2023 at the earliest. "We want to do several test flights, we want to test every component of the system, we want to test the engines, we want to test the stages, we want to test the software, we want to test the electronics," he said.
The timeline for the changeover to Rocket 4, he added, will have "a lot of uncertainty, because we want to give the time to the team to do all that testing before we do another commercial launch." He urged that Astra engineers be allowed "time to accomplish these milestones" and pledged to provide updates as warranted.
Simultaneously, Astra is working to understand what caused the issue on the June 12 launch failure, in concert with NASA and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Kemp said the rocket a normal first-stage flight and stage separation on that day, but the upper stage had a problem that caused its engine to "run 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 new tab).
Another high-profile failure occurred on Feb. 10, on a mission carrying four tiny cubesats for NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites initiative. The issue was later traced to a payload fairing deployment issue, causing the second stage to tumble, which resulted in the loss of the satellites.
Astra addressed the root causes ahead of its next launch, which saw several satellites deployed successfully March 15 following a launch from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska's Kodiak Island. The company's first successful orbital launch occurred during a test flight in November 2021.
Rocket 4 will have some design changes in its development before test flights proceed no earlier than 2023. The vehicle's payload capacity will be 1,320 pounds (600 kilograms), a large increase over previous Astra vehicles, and the upper-stage engine has been upgraded to support that change.
"The feedback that we were getting from some of the larger constellation operators was that satellites were getting larger," Kemp said of the design change. The latest version of Rocket 3, by contrast, had a payload capacity less than a tenth of its successor, at 110 pounds (50 kg).
The price for a Rocket 4 launch is expected to be less than $5 million, Astra said in Thursday's statement.
Astra aims to offer a distinctive service in the crowded small-satellite launch market using rockets that it advertises as cost-effective, easy to transport and efficient. That said, a NASA official recently said the agency is examining its options to continue 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," Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, said at an Aug. 2 Earth Science Advisory Committee meeting that SpaceNews attended. NASA is in discussions with partners, she added, "to figure out what that path forward will be."