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Rocket startup Astra to launch satellite for US Space Force this month

Astra's Rocket 3.2 launches on a test flight from Alaska's Pacific Spaceport Complex on Dec. 15, 2020. The rocket reached space, a first for California-based Astra.
Astra's Rocket 3.2 launches on a test flight from Alaska's Pacific Spaceport Complex on Dec. 15, 2020. The rocket reached space, a first for California-based Astra. (Image credit: Astra/John Kraus)

The small-launch startup Astra will get a satellite to orbit for the first time this month, if all goes according to plan.

The U.S. Space Force has booked two missions with Astra, the Bay Area company announced today (Aug. 5). The first flight will launch a test payload for the Department of Defense's Space Test Program from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska, during a window that runs from Aug. 27 through Sept. 11.

"We are thrilled to partner with Astra on this mission and believe this showcases critical low-cost, mobile and responsive launch capability," Col. Carlos Quinones, director of the Space Test Program, said in a statement.

Video: Watch Astra's Rocket 3.2 launch on its 1st successful flight

The second mission will lift off later this year, Astra representatives said.

"We're excited to kick off a multi-launch campaign with the Space Force," Astra founder, chairman and CEO Chris Kemp said in the same statement. "This orbital demonstration launch allows our team to verify numerous upgrades to our launch system."

Astra, which was established in 2016, aims to claim a large share of the small-satellite launch market by providing dedicated, cost-effective and flexible rides to space with a line of mass-produced and simplified two-stage rockets.

Those vehicles are ever evolving. For example, the upcoming Space Force launch will employ the 38-foot-tall (12 meters) Rocket 3.3, which features five "Delphin" first-stage engines and one "Aether" engine in its upper stage. But next year, Astra plans to debut the Rocket 4 line, which will sport a single first-stage engine — a brand-new one more powerful than five Delphins put together.

Astra has conducted two orbital launch attempts to date, both of them test flights from the Pacific Spaceport Complex. Rocket 3.1 lifted off in September 2020 but failed to reach space after suffering a problem with its guidance system. Three months later, Rocket 3.2 made it to the final frontier but ran out of fuel a few seconds before attaining orbital velocity.

So Astra could notch two major milestones on the upcoming Space Force mission — its first trip to orbit, and its first satellite deployment.

The company doesn't plan to rest on those laurels, should it achieve them. Astra wants to start a monthly launch cadence this fall, then ramp up to weekly liftoffs by late 2022, Kemp told Space.com earlier this summer. And it hopes to be launching nearly every day, from many locations around the globe, by 2025.

The company already has a number of customers lined up. Astra holds contracts for more than 50 launches, which together represent more than $150 million in revenue, Kemp has said.

Astra has been in the news a lot lately. In June, for example, the company announced that it was acquiring Apollo Fusion, which builds electric-propulsion spacecraft engines. Those engines will allow Astra to deliver payloads to destinations beyond low Earth orbit, Kemp has said. And last month, Astra became the first launch company ever to trade on the Nasdaq Global Select Market

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
SPACE.COM SENIOR SPACE WRITER — Michael has been writing for Space.com since 2010. 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.