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Astra Space finalizes plans for first Florida launch

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Astra Space Inc. is a launch vehicle company based in Alameda, CA (since 2016). - Astra will launch four NASA-sponsored CubeSats on its Rocket 3.3 vehicle as soon as 5 February 2022 on a mission that will be the first to use a streamlined set of commercial launch regulations. 1)

Astra announced Feb. 1 that it expected to launch its vehicle from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Feb. 5, pending receipt of a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which the company expects by Feb. 4. A three-hour launch window opens at 1 p.m. Eastern, with a backup launch opportunity Feb. 6.

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Figure 1: Astra test-fired its Rocket 3.3 vehicle Jan. 22 ahead of a launch from Cape Canaveral for NASA's VCLS program (image credit: Astra Space/John Kraus)

Astra announced Dec. 6 that its next launch would take place from Cape Canaveral after conducting previous launches from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island. That included four orbital launch attempts, the most recent of which, Nov. 20, was the first to reach orbit.

This launch will be Astra's first mission with an operational payload, a set of CubeSats on a mission called Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 41 by NASA. The agency awarded Astra a $3.9 million contract in December 2020 for the launch through its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) Demo 2 competition.

"As the first VCLS mission to lift off from Florida's Space Coast, this launch is ushering in new opportunities for CubeSat developers and small class launch vehicle providers," said Hamilton Fernandez, mission manager supporting NASA's Launch Services Program, in an agency statement. Launches under previous VCLS contracts took place from New Zealand on Rocket Lab's Electron and off the California coast by Virgin Orbit's air-launch LauncherOne system.

Three of the CubeSats on ELaNa 41 are from universities. BAMA-1, from the University of Alabama, will test a drag sail designed to rapidly deorbit the satellite. INCA, from New Mexico State University, will carry out measurements to improve space weather models. QubeSat, from the University of California Berkeley, will test how quantum gyroscopes operate in the space environment. A fourth satellite RS-51, is from NASA's Johnson Space Center and will test a fast and cost-effective way to build CubeSats and demonstrate some in-space inspection technologies.

Astra says the launch will be the first licensed under what the FAA calls Part 450, a new set of streamlined commercial launch regulations finalized in October 2020 and which took effect in March 2021. Existing licenses based on earlier regulations were grandfathered in but will gradually transition to the new regulations over several years.

One key element of Part 450 is enabling a single license to cover launches of the same vehicle from multiple sites. Astra said that it took three months to obtain the license and that it expects the license to, "with planned modifications, make it easier for Astra to launch at a higher frequency out of more launch sites in the United States."


Launch: The first operational launch of Astra's Rocket 3.3 vehicle failed Feb. 10 when the rocket's upper stage appeared to tumble out of control after stage separation. 2)

- The rocket, designated LV0008 by Astra, lifted off from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 3 p.m. EST (20:00 UTC). The launch suffered several days of delays because of a range issue as well as a last-second scrub during the previous launch attempt Feb. 7.

- However, onboard video of the vehicle showed the upper stage tumbling shortly after separation from the first stage, three minutes after liftoff. The video suggests a potential issue with the separation of the payload fairing, which, according to a mission timeline provided by the company, takes place seconds before stage separation.

- "An issue has been experienced during flight that prevented the delivery of our customer payloads to orbit today. We are deeply sorry to our customers," said Carolina Grossman, director of product management at Astra, during the launch webcast. The company did not disclose any additional information about the failure.

- "I'm with the team looking at data, and we will provide more info as soon as we can," Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, tweeted minutes after the failure.

- This was the fifth orbital launch attempt by Astra of its Rocket 3 vehicle. The first three launches, from September 2020 through August 2021, all failed to reach orbit. The fourth, in November 2021, did reach orbit but did not carry a satellite payload.

- This launch was carrying four NASA-sponsored cubesats on a mission called Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 41 by NASA. The agency awarded Astra a $3.9 million contract in December 2020 for the launch through its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) Demo 2 competition.

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Figure 2: Astra's Rocket 3.3 lifts off from Cape Canaveral Feb. 10. The launch failed when the upper stage appeared to tumble after stage separation (image credit: Astra Space/NASASpaceFlight.com)

• February 7, 2022: Astra Space aborted and then scrubbed a launch of its Rocket 3.3 small launch vehicle Feb. 7 seconds before liftoff. 3)

After a delay of 50 minutes to assess upper-level winds, Astra counted down to a launch of the Rocket 3.3 vehicle, designated LV0008, at 1:50 p.m. EST but aborted just as the engines started up. The company took nearly 90 minutes to investigate the issue before announcing it was scrubbing the launch for the day.

The company said the launch was postponed because of a "minor telemetry issue" but didn't elaborate. "We are giving the team time to complete a thorough review and will provide an update on the next launch opportunity," the company tweeted. Weather is unfavorable for a Feb. 8 launch, with only a 20% chance of acceptable weather during a three-hour window.

Astra scrubbed an initial launch attempt Feb. 5 because of what Chris Kemp, the company's chief executive, called "a range equipment failure causing a critical range detection asset to be unavailable to support our launch." While the vehicle has an autonomous flight safety system, he tweeted that system used software developed by NASA but not yet certified, so the range needs two radar systems.

Space Launch Delta 45, which operates the Eastern Range, later said it has "isolated" the problem with the radar and was working on a solution. Astra called off a Feb. 6 launch opportunity.

This is the fifth orbital launch attempt by Astra, but the first to carry a satellite payload. The first three launches, from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island, failed to reach orbit between September 2020 and August 2021. The fourth, Nov. 20 and also from Alaska, did reach orbit but did not carry satellites. The U.S. Space Force flew instrumentation on that mission to collect data about the launch environment.

This launch is carrying four NASA-sponsored CubeSats on a mission called Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) 41 by NASA. The agency awarded Astra a $3.9 million contract in December 2020 for the launch through its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) Demo 2 competition.

Three of the CubeSats on ELaNa 41 are from universities. BAMA-1, from the University of Alabama, will test a drag sail designed to rapidly deorbit the satellite. INCA, from New Mexico State University, will carry out measurements to improve space weather models. QubeSat, from the University of California Berkeley, will test how quantum gyroscopes operate in the space environment. A fourth satellite, RS-51, is from NASA's Johnson Space Center and will test a fast and cost-effective way to build CubeSats and demonstrate some in-space inspection technologies.

Astra received a license from the Federal Aviation Administration Feb. 4 for this launch. The license was the first issued by the agency under streamlined regulations called Part 450. Those regulations, which took effect last March, are intended to make it easier for companies to obtain licenses and to make those licenses more flexible.

Part of that flexibility includes allowing companies to use the same license for launching vehicles at different sites. Previously, companies had to obtain individual licenses for each site they planned to launch a vehicle from.

 

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Figure 3: Astra's Rocket 3.3 vehicle briefly ignited its first stage engines but shut them down before liftoff because of what the company later called a minor telemetry issue (image credit: NASASpaceFlight.com/Astra Space)

- "Astra is proud to be the first company to receive a Part 450 license, and we plan to continue leveraging the full potential of Part 450's flexibility," Tom Marotta, principal launch licensing manager at Astra, said in a Feb. 4 statement. "Our existing license can be modified to add more launch sites, along with new launch vehicles."

- Licenses granted prior to Part 450 taking effect remain valid, including a license Astra has for Rocket 3 launches from Alaska, and will gradually transfer to the Part 450 regulations.



1) Jeff Foust, "Astra finalizes plans for first Florida launch," SpaceNews, 1 February 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/astra-finalizes-plans-for-first-florida-launch/

2) Jeff Foust, "Astra launch of NASA-sponsored CubeSats fails," SpaceNews, 10 February, 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/astra-launch-of-nasa-sponsored-cubesats-fails/

3) Jeff Foust, "Astra aborts launch attempt," SpaceNews, 7 February 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/astra-aborts-launch-attempt/



 


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).

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