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Stealthy startup Astra's bid to win $12 million DARPA Launch Challenge lifts off next week

Astra is about to step out of the shadows into some pretty bright light.

The California-based rocketmaker had operated in stealth mode until just a few weeks ago, and it's scheduled to attempt its first orbital mission next Tuesday (Feb. 25) from a spaceport in Alaska, as part of the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Launch Challenge.

If successful, that initial flight will net Astra $2 million and set the company up to win an additional $10 million, if it can ace a second launch from a different pad at the Alaskan spaceport by March 18.

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Astra, a company based in Alameda, California, aims to launch small satellites cheaply, efficiently and very frequently. (Image credit: Astra)

The quick turnaround is integral to the Launch Challenge, which seeks to spur the development of rockets capable of lofting small military satellites efficiently and on short notice.

"We really are trying to make a fundamental shift to how we think about using space through the execution of this challenge," Todd Master, the DARPA program manager for the competition, said during a teleconference with reporters on Tuesday (Feb. 18).

Historically, U.S. military satellites have been highly capable, very expensive craft that take years to develop. But things are changing; the Department of Defense (DOD) now seeks a more agile and responsive space presence, military officials have stressed repeatedly of late.

"What we really are looking at is a future where we are using networked systems — using lots and lots of small spacecraft in network fashion, each of which is replaceable, upgradeable and tactical," Master said. 

"And a big piece of that is being able to put those on orbit, at a time and place of our choosing, on timelines that are relevant to users," he added. "And that is really what we're trying to demonstrate here in the course of the challenge."

DARPA announced the Launch Challenge two years ago. The contest initially attracted the interest of 18 companies, three of whom — Astra, Virgin Orbit and Vector Launch — advanced to become full participants. Vector Launch dropped out in September 2019 (and declared bankruptcy a few months later). Virgin Orbit exited in October 2019, leaving Astra standing alone.

And the Bay Area company will soon get a chance to show its stuff. Astra's small-satellite launcher Rocket 3.0 will lift off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, off the south coast of Alaska, during a window that opens on Feb. 25 and runs through March 1 (though Astra will get more time if bad weather intervenes).

The 38-foot-long (11.6 meters) rocket will be carrying four different payloads: a 3.3-lb. (1.5 kilograms) DOD communications cubesat called Prometheus; two 3.3-lb. craft built by the University of South Florida that will demonstrate cubesat-to-cubesat communications; and Space Object Automated Reporting Systems (SOARS), a payload provided by Virginia-based company Tiger Innovations that will test a beacon for space traffic management and space situational awareness.

The three cubesats will be deployed into orbit, but SOARS will stay attached to the rocket's upper stage, Master said.

Related: Cubesats: Tiny payloads, huge benefits for space research

Astra didn't learn the identity of these payloads until Jan. 22 and won't lay eyes on the gear until four days before liftoff at the earliest, DARPA officials said. This too is part of the Launch Challenge, which requires that launch providers be flexible and adaptable.

The target orbit for the first launch is 277 miles (445 kilometers) above Earth's surface, Masters said. But DARPA officials will consider the mission a success if it reaches orbit at least 93 miles (150 km) up, he added.

If that happens, Astra will win $2 million and start gearing up for that potential $10 million second launch, which will target a slightly different orbit. The follow-on mission will also lift off from a different pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex, another key aspect of the DARPA Launch Challenge.

"Whether we moved 5,000 miles or 1,000 feet, the technical challenges associated with it and the benefit to what we are trying demonstrate from a goals standpoint remain the same," Master said. 

There's no guarantee that the coming mission (or missions) will be successful, of course. Though Astra has tested Rocket 3.0 on the ground in California, the company has yet to conduct an orbital launch.

Indeed, company representatives stressed that a failure would be neither shocking nor particularly damaging to Astra's prospects going forward. Company CEO Chris Kemp said that it has historically taken orbital rockets four tries before they ace a mission. 

"So, at par four, we would be delighted but are not expecting to fully achieve all of the objectives here," Kemp said during Tuesday's telecon. 

"But the nation now has a completely portable launch system," he added. (Rocket 3.0 was designed to fit inside a shipping container.) "And we are capable of, and will, over the months ahead, launch and launch and launch again, potentially from different sites. And now we have the capability that DARPA wanted to see America challenged with creating."

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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