Astra to make new orbital launch attempt in July

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WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle startup Astra will make another attempt to reach orbit in July after failing to win a DARPA launch competition earlier this year.

The company announced June 16 it has reserved a launch window that opens July 20 from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island. The company didn’t announce a specific time that day for the launch, although the window itself is expected to remain open through at least July 25.

“Despite COVID-19, damage to our launch system, and ongoing events affecting our country, the team has been impressively resilient and we’ve confirmed a launch window beginning July 20th out of Kodiak, Alaska!” the company announced in a series of tweets.

The company attempted to launch its Rocket 3.0 vehicle from that spaceport March 2, but was forced to scrub the launch less than a minute before liftoff because of what it called “off-nominal” data from the rocket’s guidance, navigation and control system.

That scrub took place on the last day of the launch period for the DARPA Launch Challenge, a responsive launch competition started by the agency two years earlier. Dozens of companies expressed an interest in the competition, and DARPA selected Astra, then known only as a “stealth” competitor, along with Vector and Virgin Orbit, as finalists. Vector, though, dropped out of the competition because of financial problems that ultimately led to its bankruptcy and liquidation, while Virgin Orbit bowed out to focus on its core business activities.

Had Astra reached orbit on that March launch attempt, it would have won $2 million. It could have then won an additional $10 million if it carried out a second launch later in the month from a nearby pad at the same spaceport.

Astra continued preparations for another launch attempt, outside of the DARPA competition, later in March, but the company said the rocket was damaged during preparations for that new launch attempt. It was widely believed in the industry that the rocket was, in fact, destroyed in some kind of explosion or fire, particularly when satellite imagery of the pad taken shortly after the incident showed burn scars in the vicinity.

While Astra has not formally disclosed the cause of the incident, Chris Kemp, chief executive of the company, told CNBC that a valve on the rocket malfunctioned while detanking the rocket after a wet dress rehearsal.

The company says the upcoming launch is part of a campaign it announced earlier this year to reach orbit over the course of three launches. “Success for this flight means we accomplish enough to make orbit within three flights, which we have defined as at least achieving a nominal first stage burn,” it said.

Astra referred to a blog post in March, shortly before the end of the DARPA Launch Challenge, that outlined that approach. It listed a set of seven milestones from “launch and clear the pad” to “reach orbit.” Completing the first stage burn was the fourth of those milestones, after liftoff, passing through “Max-Q” or maximum dynamic pressure on the rocket, and generating enough velocity to reach a peak altitude of 100 kilometers, a common definition of space

Milestones after completion of the first stage burn include stage and payload fairing separation, ignition of the rocket’s upper stage engine, and reaching orbit. If Astra is able to complete the first stage burn on its next launch, “we’ll be no more than two flights away from reaching orbit.”