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Astra rocket reaches orbit for 1st time on test flight for US military

Astra has joined the orbital club.

The Bay Area startup's 43-foot-tall (13 meters) Launch Vehicle 0007 (LV0007) lifted off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Alaska's Kodiak Island on Saturday (Nov. 20) at 1:16 a.m. EST (0616 GMT), carrying a dummy payload on a test flight for the U.S. military.

Just nine minutes later, LV0007's upper stage slipped into orbit about 310 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth, notching a huge milestone for Astra.

"We are absolutely bursting with pride at LV0007 — lucky number seven," Carolina Grossman, Astra's director of product management, said during a webcast of the launch. "This represents a huge, huge step in our mission to improve life on Earth from space."

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

Astra's Launch Vehicle 0007 (LV0007) lifts off on a test flight from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska on Nov. 20, 2021. (Image credit: Footage provided by NASASpaceflight LLC and Astra Space Inc.)

Astra, which was founded in 2016, aims to secure a large portion of the small-satellite launch market with its line of cost-effective, ever-evolving rockets. Those rockets are designed to be highly responsive and flexible as well; Astra's entire launch system can be transported in just a few standard shipping containers. 

The company already has a number of customers, some of whom are very high-profile. For example, in May, Astra announced that it had inked a launch contract with San Francisco company Planet, which operates the world's largest fleet of Earth-observing satellites. 

And NASA selected Astra to launch its Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats mission, or TROPICS for short. TROPICS will study hurricanes using six tiny cubesats, which Astra will loft over three launches in the first half of 2022, if all goes according to plan. 

The upper stage of Astra's LV0007 powers its way to orbit on Nov. 20, 2021.

The upper stage of Astra's LV0007 powers its way to orbit on Nov. 20, 2021. (Image credit: Footage provided by NASASpaceflight LLC and Astra Space Inc.)

Saturday morning's launch was Astra's fourth-ever orbital test flight. The first attempt, in September 2020, ended shortly after liftoff when the company's rocket suffered a problem with its guidance system. 

Astra was back on the pad just three months later for try number number two, which succeeded in reaching space. However, the company's rocket ran out of fuel just a few seconds before attaining orbital velocity.

The third attempt occurred on Aug. 28. Just after liftoff that day, one of the five first-stage engines on Astra's LV0006 conked out, causing the rocket to slide horizontally off the pad. The vehicle recovered nicely and soared high into the Alaska sky, but the flight ended up being terminated after about 2.5 minutes.

All four of the orbital attempts to date have occurred from the Pacific Spaceport Complex, though Astra aims to launch from a variety of locations around the world eventually. The two most recent flights have been test missions for the U.S. military that carried dummy payloads not designed to be deployed.

We should expect more spaceflight action over the coming weeks and months from Astra, which hopes to ramp up to a nearly daily launch cadence by 2025. 

"We have rocket serial number 8, 9, 10 in production," Astra CEO and co-founder Chris Kemp said during Saturday's webcast, just after LV0007 reached orbit. "We're just getting started."

Astra's ambitions extend beyond building and launching rockets. For example, the company is also developing its own satellite bus, which will allow customers to integrate their payloads into a spacecraft they don't have to build themselves. And Astra recently filed an application with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to assemble a constellation of 13,600 internet-beaming satellites.

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.