Astra's bid to win $12 million DARPA Launch Challenge comes up short

A view of Astra's Rocket 3.0 on the launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska on March 2, 2020. The day's planned launch attempt was scrubbed, ending Astra's chance to win the DARPA Launch Challenge.
A view of Astra's Rocket 3.0 on the launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska on March 2, 2020. The day's planned launch attempt was scrubbed, ending Astra's chance to win the DARPA Launch Challenge. (Image credit: DARPA)

The DARPA Launch Challenge's $12 million purse will go unclaimed.

The California-based spaceflight startup Astra scrubbed a planned orbital launch attempt from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska's Kodiak Island on Monday (March 2). It would have been the first-ever liftoff for Astra's Rocket 3.0 and just the third overall for Astra, which attempted suborbital flights with two earlier booster iterations in 2018.

The mission's guidance, navigation and control officer noticed some potentially problematic data less than a minute before liftoff Monday, and the team couldn't resolve the issue before the end of the three-hour launch window, Astra representatives said during a launch webcast.

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Monday was the last day Astra had to complete the first phase of the two-part, $12 million DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Launch Challenge. Success on Monday would have netted the company $2 million and given it a chance to win an additional $10 million by acing a second mission from a different pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex by March 18. 

"Winning the challenge would have been fantastic today, but our objective really is to reach orbit in as few flights as possible," Astra CEO Chris Kemp said during the webcast. "So, we really want to use this rocket and we want to get out there again when we know everything is perfect. And, unfortunately, that wasn't today."

The DARPA Launch Challenge sought to encourage the development of private American rockets that can launch small military satellites cheaply and on short notice. DARPA announced the initiative in 2018, and 18 companies expressed interest in competing for the prize. Three of them — Astra, Virgin Orbit and Vector Launch — advanced to become "full participants." But Virgin Orbit and Vector Launch eventually dropped out, leaving Astra as the sole competitor.

Astra was founded in 2016 but remained in stealth mode until just last month. The company aims to increase access to space by offering bantam satellites affordable, dedicated rides aboard small and efficient launch vehicles. 

For example, the two-stage Rocket 3.0 is just 38 feet long (11.6 meters) by 52 inches (132 centimeters) wide and can fit inside a shipping container, Astra representatives have said. The launcher was designed to deliver 55 lbs. (25 kilograms) of payload to sun synchronous orbit, a swath of space between 370 miles and 500 miles (600 to 800 kilometers) high in which spacecraft can pass over the same patch of Earth at the same solar time each day.

And Rocket 3.0 was going to carry payloads on its first DARPA Launch Challenge flight — four of them, in fact. Three were 3.3-lb. (1.5 kg) cubesats: the Department of Defense's Prometheus communications craft and two University of South Florida satellites designed to demonstrate cubesat-to-cubesat communications. 

The other payload, Space Object Automated Reporting System (SOARS), was provided by Virginia-based Tiger Innovations. It's designed to test a beacon for space traffic management and space situational awareness.

Today's mission plan called for the three cubesats to be deployed about 277 miles (445 km) above Earth. SOARS was designed to remain attached to Rocket 3.0's upper stage. (Hitting the altitude target precisely was not a mission requirement, however; DARPA officials said today's liftoff would have been considered a success if Rocket 3.0 had achieved orbit at least 93 miles, or 150 km, up.)

The identity of the four payloads wasn't revealed to Astra until Jan. 22, and the company didn't get a look at the satellites until just a few days before the opening of the launch window on Feb. 25, DARPA officials said. (Monday's planned liftoff was delayed about a week by bad weather and other issues.) Astra would have been kept in the dark until shortly before the second mission lifted off as well; flexibility and adaptability were key components of the DARPA Launch Challenge

"What we really are looking at is a future where we are using networked systems — using lots and lots of small spacecraft in network fashion, each of which is replaceable, upgradable and tactical," Todd Master, the DARPA program manager for the competition, said during a teleconference with reporters on Feb. 18.

"And a big piece of that is being able to put those on orbit, at a time and place of our choosing, on timelines that are relevant to users," he added. "And that is really what we're trying to demonstrate here in the course of the challenge."

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Astra wasn't necessarily expecting to win the DARPA Launch Challenge. Last month, Kemp stressed that orbital rockets typically need about four attempts to ace their first mission.

"So, at par 4, we would be delighted but are not expecting to fully achieve all of the objectives here," Kemp said during the Feb. 18 telecon.

And Astra should still be fine going forward, he added. Participation in the DARPA Launch Challenge ramped up the company's development efforts. And the company plans to launch many missions in the near future, Kemp said.

The United States "now has a completely portable launch system," he said on Feb. 18. "And we are capable of, and will, over the months ahead, launch and launch and launch again, potentially from different sites. And now we have the capability that DARPA wanted to see America challenged with creating."

Master lauded Astra for the progress that the company made — namely, getting Rocket 3.0 up to Alaska and ready to fly on such short notice.

"That's pretty amazing. But it was a hard challenge," Master said during Monday's webcast, adding that Astra "almost made it to the finish line."

And DARPA is heartened by what Astra was able to accomplish during the course of the competition, he said. 

"We learn a lot from these challenges, and we think that even being able to get to the point we got to will demonstrate to folks that this is something that is right on the cusp of possible," Master said. "And we anticipate that, in the very near future, we'll be able to see these approaches succeed."

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.