Astra failed to deliver four satellites to orbit as planned today (Feb. 10) in the company's first-ever orbital launch from the contiguous United States.
The California startup's 43-foot-tall (13 meters) Launch Vehicle 0008 (LV0008) launched the ELaNa 41 mission from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station today, rising off the pad at 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT).
The two-stage LV0008 performed well initially, soaring high into the Florida skies. But something appeared to go wrong about 3 minutes into flight, just after the rocket's first and second stages separated. Footage from a camera onboard the second stage showed the rocket body spinning rather than cruising smoothly toward its intended destination, an orbit with an altitude of 310 miles (500 kilometers).
"Unfortunately, we heard that an issue has been experienced during flight that prevented the delivery of our customer payloads to orbit today," Carolina Grossman, Astra's director of product management, said during a webcast of today's launch. "More information will be provided as we complete the data review."
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Astra, which was founded in 2016, aims to snag a large portion of the small-satellite launch market with its line of mass-produced, cost-efficient and ever-evolving rockets. The company had conducted four orbital launches before today, all of them test missions that lifted off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska.
Astra reached space on two of those four missions. And on the most recent trial, a mission for the U.S. military that blasted off this past November, the company's LV0007 made it to orbit — a huge achievement for the Bay Area company. (An Astra rocket reached space during a December 2020 test flight but ran out of fuel shortly before attaining orbital velocity.)
Today's mission aimed to build on that success, taking Astra from the test phase into operational flight. LV0008, part of Astra's Rocket 3 family of launch vehicles, carried four tiny satellites, which flew via NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) initiative. The little spacecraft would have done a variety of work in the final frontier had launch succeeded.
For example, the Bama-1 cubesat, developed by a team at the University of Alabama, aimed to test a "drag sail" designed to mitigate the space debris problem by helping spacecraft deorbit in a controlled fashion at the end of their lives.
New Mexico State University's Ionospheric Neutron Content Analyzer, or INCA, was designed to "study the latitude and time dependencies of the neutron spectrum in low Earth orbit for the first time to improve current space weather models and mitigate threats to space and airborne assets," NASA officials wrote in an ELaNa 41 update on Feb. 1.
QubeSat, from the University of California, Berkeley, was a technology demonstration designed to test how the space environment affects quantum gyroscopes. And NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston provided the R5-S1 cubesat, which would have demonstrated tech that could aid in-space inspection of satellites as well as help trailblaze ways to build small spacecraft quickly and cheaply, NASA officials wrote.
Astra will conduct an investigation into what happened today, working together with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
"Missions like these are critical for developing new launch vehicles in this growing commercial sector," Hamilton Fernandez, mission manager with NASA's Launch Services Program, said in a statement after today's failure. "The Astra team demonstrated dedication to supporting NASA's mission. The lessons learned will benefit them and the agency going forward."
Depending on what that investigation finds, the company could get back on the launch pad relatively soon. For example, Astra won the contract to launch NASA's TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats) mission, which will study hurricane formation and evolution using six cubesats.
Astra plans to launch those six satellites over the course of three missions this year, all of which will lift off from Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific.
ELaNa 41 was originally supposed to launch on Saturday (Feb. 5), but an attempt that day was scrubbed due to an issue with the radar system at the launch range. That problem was resolved in time for a try on Monday (Feb. 7), which was aborted just seconds before liftoff due to a telemetry issue.
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 on Facebook.