Astra launch of NASA-sponsored cubesats fails

by

Updated 4:25 p.m. Eastern with stock performance information.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — 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.

The rocket, designated LV0008 by Astra, lifted off from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 3 p.m. Eastern. 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.

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

Astra, listed on the Nasdaq exchange after going public through a SPAC merger last year, had trading of its shares stopped minutes after the launch failure after dropping more than 5%. Shares plummeted when trading resumed, and the stock closed down 26%. The company’s shares dropped nearly 14% Feb. 7 after the abort and later scrub, but recovered its value over the next two days.