NASA TROPICS Cube Astra Launch Fails

NASA TROPICS Cube Astra Launch Fails

NASA TROPICS Cube Astra Launch Fails

ARCADIA, Calif. – An Astra launch of two NASA cubesats to track tropical storms failed on June 12 when the rocket’s top stage was shut down prematurely.

Astra’s Rocket 3.3 vehicle, designated LV0010, took off east from Space Launch Complex 46 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 1:43 p.m. The launch occurred at the end of a two-hour window opened at 12:00 p.m. Eastern, after an initial launch attempt was halted less than two minutes before launch due to a problem with the vehicle’s liquid oxygen propellant.

The launch initially went according to plan, with the first stage lasting three minutes, followed by shutting down the engine, deploying the cargo fairing and separating the stages. The top stage engine ignited in a burn intended to last 5 minutes and 15 seconds, according to a mission timeline distributed by the company.

However, about four minutes after that fire, video of the rocket briefly showed a plume from the engine, after which the vehicle appeared to tumble. The scheduled time of turning off the engine and deploying the charge of two cubes of the rocket passed in silence.

The company soon acknowledged a failed mission. “We had a nominal flight in the first leg. The top stage shut down prematurely and we failed to put the payloads into orbit,” the company tweeted† “We have shared our regrets with NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full data review.”

The failure is the second in three launch attempts for Astra this year. Another NASA launch, which also took place from Cape Canaveral on Feb. 10, failed when the payload fairing failed to dislodge, a problem that traced the company to an error in the wiring diagram for the separation system. The company returned to flight on March 15, putting the first customer payloads into orbit during a launch from Kodiak Island, Alaska. The company has successfully completed orbit in only two of its first seven launches.

This launch was the first of three for NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) constellation, a set of six three-unit cubes that carry microwave radiometers to measure temperature and precipitation in tropical storm systems. The entire constellation of six satellites would have yielded a visit time of less than an hour, allowing scientists to better monitor the formation of such storms, although the mission can still achieve its scientific goals with four satellites.

The six TROPICS satellites would launch two at a time on three Astra rockets, each in different orbital planes. The mission’s preferred orbits — an altitude of 550 kilometers and an inclination of 29.75 degrees — optimized the science they could produce, but provided a dedicated launch solution rather than launching them as secondary payloads.

“We need to get to a track with a 30 degree ramp and no one else really wants to go there. The rideshares are all going to sun synchronous orbits or medium ramps, so it’s very well targeted for a smaller vehicle with a very focused insertion where they will give us exactly where we want to go,” said William Blackwell, principal investigator of TROPICS at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, in a video about the mission.

However, NASA acknowledged that it was taking more risk with this approach. It awarded Astra a $7.95 million contract for the three launches in February 2021, ahead of the company’s first successful launch.

“While we’re disappointed at this point, we know there’s value in taking risks in our overall NASA Science portfolio because it takes innovation to lead,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, tweeted after the failed launch.

“I am confident that in the future we will succeed in using this valuable launch capability to explore the unknown and give others the same opportunity to inspire the world through discovery,” he added.