Astra took another step forward in preparing for its first-ever launch of operational satellites.
The California company performed a "static fire" test with its Rocket 3.3 vehicle at Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Saturday (Jan. 22), briefly igniting the launcher's first-stage engines while keeping it anchored to the pad.
The test is part of the leadup to the ELaNa-41 mission, which will loft six tiny cubesats as part of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites initiative. ELaNa-41 will likely lift off soon, but the date is not yet set; Astra is still waiting on a launch license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, company representatives said via Twitter on Saturday (opens in new tab).
Astra, which was founded in 2016, aims to secure a large portion of the small-satellite launch market with its line of mass-produced, responsive and cost-effective rockets. The company has conducted four orbital launches to date. Astra reached orbit for the first time on its most recent mission, which lifted off on Nov. 20, 2021 carrying a dummy payload for the U.S. military.
All four of those previous flights were test missions that launched from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska. So Astra will notch two huge milestones with ELaNa-41 — its first liftoff from the Lower 48 states and its first mission with operational satellites on board.
ELaNa-41's six satellites were developed by three different universities (the University of Alabama, New Mexico State University and the University of California, Berkeley) and one NASA facility (Johnson Space Center in Houston). The satellites will conduct a variety of research in orbit, from testing "drag sail" technology for deorbiting satellites to studying space weather. You can read about all of them here (opens in new tab). (That NASA page states that five satellites are flying on ELaNa-41, but Cal Berkeley's CURIE mission apparently consists of two cubesats (opens in new tab), not one.)
Astra is flying ELaNa-41 under a $3.9 million contract with NASA's Launch Services Program. The company will launch another mission for the space agency this year as well, if all goes according to plan.
NASA picked Astra to launch its TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats) mission. TROPICS will study hurricane formation and evolution using six cubesats, which Astra will loft this year on three launches from Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).