When Astra’s diminutive Rocket 3.3 lifted off from its pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on June 12th, everything seemed to be going well. In fact, the mission was progressing exactly to plan right up until the end — the booster’s second stage Aether engine appeared to be operating normally until it abruptly shut down roughly a minute ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, orbital mechanics are nothing if not exacting, and an engine burn that ends a minute early might as well never have happened at all.
According to the telemetry values shown on-screen during the live coverage of the launch, the booster’s upper stage topped out at a velocity of 6.573 kilometers per second, well short of the 7.8 km/s required to attain a stable low Earth orbit. While the video feed was cut as soon as it was clear something had gone wrong, the rigid physics of spaceflight means there’s little question about the sequence of events that followed. Without the necessary energy to stay in orbit, the upper stage of the rocket would have been left in a sub-orbital trajectory, eventually reentering the atmosphere and burning up a few thousand kilometers downrange from where it started.
Of course, it’s no secret that spaceflight is difficult. Doubly so for startup that only has a few successful flights under their belt. There’s no doubt that Astra will determine why their engine shutdown early and make whatever changes are necessary to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and if their history is any indication, they’re likely to be flying again in short order. Designed for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) competition that sought to spur the development of cheap and small rockets capable of launching payloads on short notice, Astra’s family of rockets have already demonstrated unusually high operational agility.
Astra, and the Rocket 3.3 design, will live to fly again. But what of the payload the booster was due to put into orbit? That’s a bit more complicated. This was the first of three flights that were planned to assemble a constellation of small CubeSats as part of NASA’s TROPICS mission. The space agency has already released a statement saying the mission can still achieve its scientific goals, albeit with reduced coverage, assuming the remaining satellites safely reach orbit. But should one of the next launches fail, both of which are currently scheduled to fly on Astra’s rockets, it seems unlikely the TROPICS program will be able to achieve its primary goal.
So what exactly is TROPICS, and why has NASA pinned its success on the ability for a small and relatively immature launch vehicle to make multiple flights with their hardware onboard? Let’s take a look.
We’ve all heard it said, and it bears repeating: getting to space is hard. But it actually gets even harder the smaller your booster is. That’s because the structure, engines, avionics, and useful payload of a rocket only make up a tiny portion of its liftoff mass, while the rest is dedicated to the propellant it must expend to reach orbital velocity. That’s why a Falcon 9 tipping the scales at 549,054 kilograms (1,207,920 pounds) can only loft a payload of 22,800 kg (50,265 lb) — roughly 4% of its takeoff weight.
As you might imagine, there’s a lower limit where there simply isn’t enough mass in the equation for the hardware necessary to build a fully functional rocket. But where is that limit? That’s precisely what aerospace newcomer Astra is trying to find out. Their Rocket 3 is among the smallest orbital boosters to ever fly, closer in size and mass to the German V2 of World War II than the towering vehicles being built by SpaceX or Blue Origin. Even the Rocket Lab Electron, itself an exceptionally svelte rocket, is considerably larger.
The reason they’re trying to build such a small rocket is of course very simple: smaller means cheaper. Assuming you’ve got a payload light and compact enough to fit on their launcher, Astra says they can put it into orbit for roughly $2.5 million USD; less than half the cost of a dedicated flight aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron, and competitive with SpaceX’s “rideshare” program. Such a low ticket price would have been unfathomable a decade ago, and promises to shake up an already highly competitive commercial launch market. But naturally, Astra has to get the thing flying reliably before we can celebrate this new spaceflight milestone.
Their latest mission ended in a total loss of the vehicle and payload when the upper stage tumbled out of control roughly three minutes after an otherwise perfect liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Such issues aren’t uncommon for a new orbital booster, and few rockets in history have entered regular service without a lost payload or two on the books. But this failure, broadcast live over the Internet, was something quite unusual: because of the unconventional design of Astra’s diminutive rocket, the upper stage appeared to get stuck inside the booster after the payload fairing failed to open fully.
Let’s launch into a round-up of stories that are out of this world, as we take a look at what’s happening in the realm of space exploration.
Ten Billion Dollars For A Telescope? Don’t Drop It!
Perhaps the most highly anticipated space mission of the moment is the James Webb Space Telescope, an infra-red telescope that will be placed in an orbit around the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point from which it will serve as the successor to the now long-in-the-tooth Hubble telescope. After many years of development the craft has been assembled and shipped to French Guiana for a scheduled Ariane 5 launch on the 22nd of December. We can only imagine what must have gone through the minds of the engineers and technicians working on the telescope when an unplanned release of a clamp band securing it to the launch vehicle adapter sent a vibration throughout the craft. Given the fragility of some of its components this could have jeopardised the mission, however after inspection it was found that no damage had occurred and that space-watchers and astronomers alike can breathe easy.
It’s often said that getting into orbit is less about going up, and more about going sideways very fast. So in that sense, the recent launch conducted by aerospace startup Astra could be seen as the vehicle simply getting the order of operations wrong. Instead of going up and then burning towards the horizon, it made an exceptionally unusual sideways flight before finally moving skyward.
As you might expect, the booster didn’t make it to orbit. But not for lack of trying. In fact, that the 11.6 meter (38 feet) vehicle was able to navigate through its unprecedented lateral maneuver and largely correct its flight-path is a testament to the engineering prowess of the team at the Alameda, California based company. It’s worth noting that it was the ground controller’s decision to cut the rocket’s engines once it had flown high and far enough away to not endanger anyone on the ground that ultimately ended the flight; the booster itself was still fighting to reach space until the very last moment.
There’s a certain irony to the fact that this flight, the third Astra has attempted since their founding in 2016, was the first to be live streamed to YouTube. Had the company not pulled back their usual veil of secrecy, we likely wouldn’t have such glorious high-resolution footage of what will forever be remembered as one of the most bizarre rocket mishaps in history. The surreal image of the rocket smoothly sliding out of frame as if it was trying to avoid the camera’s gaze has already become a meme online, arguably reaching a larger and more diverse audience than would have resulted from a successful launch. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad press.
Naturally, the viral clip has spurred some questions. You don’t have to be a space expert to know that the pointy end of the rocket is usually supposed to go up, but considering how smooth the maneuver looks, some have even wondered if it wasn’t somehow intentional. With so much attention on this unusual event, it seems like the perfect time to take a close look at how Astra’s latest rocket launch went, quite literally, sideways.
After the end of the Second World War the United States and the Soviet Union started working feverishly to perfect the rocket technology that the Germans developed for the V-2 program. This launched the Space Race, which thankfully for everyone involved, ended with boot prints on the Moon instead of craters in Moscow and DC. Since then, global tensions have eased considerably. Today people wait for rocket launches with excitement rather than fear.
That being said, it would be naive to think that the military isn’t still interested in pushing the state-of-the-art forward. Even in times of relative peace, there’s a need for defensive weapons and reconnaissance. Which is exactly why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been soliciting companies to develop a small and inexpensive launch vehicle that can put lightweight payloads into Earth orbit on very short notice. After all, you never know when a precisely placed spy satellite can make the difference between a simple misunderstanding and all-out nuclear war.
More than 50 companies originally took up DARPA’s “Launch Challenge”, but only a handful made it through to the final selection. Virgin Orbit entered their air-launched booster into the competition, but ended up dropping out of contention to focus on getting ready for commercial operations. Vector Launch entered their sleek 12 meter long rocket into the competition, but despite a successful sub-orbital test flight of the booster, the company ended up going bankrupt at the end of 2019. In the end, the field was whittled down to just a single competitor: a relatively unknown Silicon Valley company named Astra.
Should the company accomplish all of the goals outlined by DARPA, including launching two rockets in quick succession from different launch pads, Astra stands to win a total of $12 million; money which will no doubt help the company get their booster ready to enter commercial service. Rumored to be one of the cheapest orbital rockets ever built and small enough to fit inside of a shipping container, it should prove to be an interesting addition to the highly competitive “smallsat” launcher market.