May 22, 2022

SPACE MIRROR

Race to the Galaxies starts here

Astra’s first orbital launch attempt falters during first stage burn[

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Astra’s privately-developed small satellite launcher crashed shortly after liftoff from Alaska Friday evening on the company’s first try at reaching orbit.

Astra’s Rocket 3.1 takes off from Kodiak Island, Alaska. Credit: Astra / John Kraus

Astra’s privately-developed small satellite launcher crashed shortly after liftoff from Alaska Friday evening on the company’s first try at reaching orbit.

The startup launch company confirmed on Twitter that the flight ended during the rocket’s first stage burn, following a successful liftoff and initial climb from a launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

“It does look like we got a good amount of nominal flight time,” Astra tweeted.

Astra released updates on the status of the mission on Twitter, but did not provide a public live video stream of the flight.

The company tweeted at 11:19 p.m. EDT Friday (7:19 p.m. Alaska time; 0319 GMT) that the 38-foot-tall (11.6-meter) rocket lifted off from Kodiak. A few minutes later, Astra tweeted again to announce that the flight ended shortly after takeoff.

Based in Alameda, California, Astra has developed a small two-stage launcher sized to loft microsatellites and CubeSats into orbit. The launch Friday evening was the Astra’s first try at reaching orbit, but officials cautioned before the test flight that the company was unlikely to achieve orbit on its first attempt.

The liftoff Friday occurred after a series of scrubbed launch attempts in early August caused by technical issues and poor weather. Another launch attempt last month was canceled after a boat strayed into a restricted offshore zone near the launch site on Kodiak Island.

Astra called off a flight attempt Thursday to evaluate data from a sensor, then proceeded with another countdown Friday that culminated in the launch.

The privately-funded launch company set modest expectations for its first flight of an orbital-class rocket. The launch vehicle flown Friday, designated Rocket 3.1, was powered by five Astra-built Delphin main engines on its first stage. The kerosene-fueled engines cumulatively generated about 31,500 pounds of thrust.

Chris Kemp, Astra’s co-founder and CEO, said in July that the company did not intend to hit a “hole-in-one” on the Rocket 3.1 test flight by accomplishing all the milestones necessary to climb into space and accelerate to orbital velocity.

“We intend to accomplish enough to ensure that we’re able to get to orbit after three flights, and for us that means a nominal first-stage burn and getting the upper stage to separate successfully,” Kemp said in a conference call with reporters in late July, before the first series of Rocket 3.1 launch attempts.

Astra did not disclose any additional details about the outcome of the mission Friday night, but a tweet from Steve Jurvetson — a venture capitalist with ties to the launch industry — suggested the rocket’s engines “cut out” about 30 seconds after liftoff.

An amateur video from Kodiak Island shared on social media also appeared to show the rocket’s engines prematurely shutting down shortly after launch. The rocket is then seen exploding on impact at the spaceport, presumably in an area cleared of personnel.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, tweeted a message of support to Astra Friday night.

“Sorry to hear that,” Musk tweeted. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out though. Took us four launches to reach orbit. Rockets are hard.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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