Astra will launch its 1st satellite mission in early 2021

Astra is moving full-speed ahead after notching its first spaceflight success this week.

The Bay Area startup's two-stage Rocket 3.2 soared high on a test flight from Alaska on Tuesday (Dec. 15), acing a series of important milestones and hitting its target altitude of 236 miles (380 kilometers), Astra representatives wrote in a blog post on Thursday (Dec. 17). 

The 38-foot-tall (12 meters) Rocket 3.2's upper stage reached a maximum speed of 16,106 mph (25,920 km/h) during the test mission, just short of the 17,180 mph (27,649 km/h) needed to slide into orbit around Earth. But the upper stage ran out out of fuel, so a few tweaks should be all that's needed to allow its successor to achieve orbital velocity, Astra representatives said.

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

That successor will fly soon, and, unlike Rocket 3.2, it will carry a satellite for a customer.

"Our data shows that all of the rocket’s hardware and software performed exceptionally well, and that only a small adjustment to the mixture ratio of fuel and oxidizer stands between us and our first customer payload delivery in a few months," Astra co-founders Chris Kemp and Adam London wrote in the Thursday blog post.

"Most importantly, this means that Astra can immediately begin delivering for our customers," added Kemp, the company's CEO, and London, its chief technology officer. "As of today, we have contracted over two dozen launches, representing over 100 spacecraft. We are immediately executing our plan to ramp up rocket production and launch operations."

NASA is among those customers: The agency recently awarded Astra $3.9 million to launch small satellites to orbit. 

Related: The history of rockets

Astra is developing a line of flexible, low-cost rockets designed to give small satellites dedicated rides to space — a market currently dominated by another California company, Rocket Lab. (Small spacecraft also commonly hitch rides on bigger rockets such as SpaceX's Falcon 9, but such "rideshare" missions generally don't provide precision deliveries for their secondary payloads.)

Tuesday's flight was Astra's second orbital test launch. The first one, which occurred this past September, ended about 30 seconds after liftoff; Astra's Rocket 3.1 experienced some guidance issues, and mission team members terminated the flight for safety reasons.

Astra traced that problem to an apparent software issue in Rocket 3.1's guidance and navigation system, made some adjustments and got back on the pad. Rocket 3.2 launched just three months after its predecessor came crashing back to Earth, so Astra's plan to launch its first satellite a few months from now does not seem overly optimistic.

That target is also in keeping with Astra's timeline for operational missions. The company's website currently offers launch services starting in 2021 and 2022. 

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.