Astra aborts launch attempt

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WASHINGTON — Astra Space aborted and then scrubbed a launch of its Rocket 3.3 small launch vehicle Feb. 7 seconds before liftoff.

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. Eastern 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.

“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.