NASA TROPICS cubesat launch by Astra fails

NASA TROPICS cubesat launch by Astra fails

ARCADIA, CA - The Astra launch of two NASA CubeSats to monitor tropical storms on June 12 failed when the rocket's upper stage prematurely shut down.

The Astra Rocket 3.3, designated LV0010, took off from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 1:43 p.m. Eastern. 

Takeoff occurred near the end of a two-hour window that began at 12 p.m.East after an initial launch attempt was halted less than two minutes before takeoff due to a problem with the vehicle's liquid oxygen fuel condition.

The launch began as planned, with a three-minute first stage firing, followed by engine shutdown, deployment of payload aerodynamics, and stage separation. According to a mission timeline distributed by the company, the upper stage engine caught a burn that was supposed to last 5 minutes and 15 seconds.

However, about four minutes after the burn, a video clip from the rocket showed a shaft from the engine, following which the car appeared to stumble. The planned time to shut down the engine and silently deploy the rocket's payload of two cubic satellites passed.

The company soon admitted that the mission had failed. “We had a nominal first stage flight. 

We didn't get the payloads into orbit because the upper stage shut down early. "We've apologized to NASA and the payload team." More details will be provided once we have completed a thorough review of the data."

The failure is the second of Astra's three launch attempts this year. Another NASA launch, also conducted from Cape Canaveral on February 10, failed when the payload display failed, an issue the company traced to a faulty wiring diagram of the separation system. 

The company returned to flight on March 15, putting the first customer payloads into orbit at launch from Kodiak Island, Alaska. Only two of the company's first seven launches succeeded in reaching orbit.

This launch was the first of three launches of NASA's time-resolved observations of precipitation structure and storm Intensity with the Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS), six CubeSats equipped with microwave radiometers to measure temperature and precipitation in tropical storm systems.

The six-satellite constellation could have provided revisit times of less than an hour, allowing scientists to better track the formation of such storms, though the mission could still accomplish its scientific goals with four satellites.

The six TROPICS satellites will launch two simultaneously at three Astra rockets, each in different orbital planes. The mission's preferred orbits, at 550 kilometers and 29.75 degrees inclination, improved the science they could produce but necessitated a custom launch solution rather than launching them as secondary payloads.

"We need to go into a 30-degree inclined orbit, and no one really wants to go there," said TROPICS principal investigator William Blackwell of MIT Lincoln Laboratory in a mission video.

NASA, on the other hand, acknowledged that it was taking a greater risk with this approach. Astra was awarded a $7.95 million contract for three launches in February 2021, just months before the company's first successful launch.

"Although we are currently disappointed, we know that there is value in taking risks in NASA's overall science suite because innovation is required for us to lead," Zurbuchen, Thomas, NASA associate administrator for science, wrote on Twitter after the launch failed.

"I am confident that in the future, we will be able to use this ever-valuable ability to explore the unknown and provide others with the same opportunity to inspire the world through discovery," he added.

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