Astra Space Rocket 3.3 Fails, 4 Payloads Lost in First Operational Launch Attempt

Scott Manley put together this comparison of second stage separation and ignition of the successful flight no. 7 and today’s failed flight.

Astra Space’s first attempt to place satellites into orbit failed on Thursday, with the company’s Rocket 3.3 tumbling out of control after ignition of the booster’s second stage. Astra’s stock (ASTR) plunged by as more than 31 percent to a low of $3.59 before recovering to $3.91 in after-hours trading.

“We experienced an issue during today’s flight that resulted in the payloads not being delivered to orbit,” the company tweeted. “We are deeply sorry to our customers @NASA and the small satellite teams. More information will be provided after we complete a data review.”

The series of events that led to the failure is unclear. Onboard video appeared to show a failure of the payload shroud to separate. It is possible that the shroud was blown off by second stage engine’s ignition, causing the vehicle to tumble out of control.

It was the fourth failure in five orbital launch attempts for Astra Space’s small-satellite launcher. Rocket 3.3 placed a dummy payload into orbit from the Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska in November. Today’s launch was Astra Space’s first flight from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Rocket 3.3 carried four CubeSats developed by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and three universities. NASA sponsored the CubeSat launch under the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. It was the 41st ELaNa mission, and the program’s first launch with Astra Space.

The CubeSats lost in the accident included:

BAMA-1 – University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa

BAMA-1 is a technology demonstration mission that will conduct a flight demonstration of a drag sail module by rapidly deorbiting the satellite. Spacecraft equipped with drag sail technology will be able to deorbit reliably and rapidly, thus reducing space debris and the risk to operational satellites, space stations, and crewed vehicles.

INCA – New Mexico State University, Las Cruces

INCA (Ionospheric Neutron Content Analyzer) is a scientific investigation mission that will study the latitude and time dependencies of the neutron spectrum in low-Earth orbit for the first time to improve current space weather models and mitigate threats to space and airborne assets. The measurements will come from a new directional neutron spectrometer, which is being developed in conjunction with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of New Hampshire.

QubeSat – University of California, Berkeley

QubeSat is a technology demonstration mission. It will test and characterize the effects of space conditions on quantum gyroscopes using nitrogen-vacancy centers in diamond. Nitrogen-vacancy centers are nitrogen defect points in diamond with quantum properties that allow scientists to form gyroscopes that measure angular velocity. Nitrogen-vacancy center-based technologies are particularly well suited for space because of their high accuracy, small form factor, and radiation tolerance.

R5-S1 – NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston

R5-S1 is intended to demonstrate a fast and cost-effective way to build successful CubeSats in addition to demonstrating some technologies that are important to in-space inspection, which could help to make crewed space exploration safer and more efficient. R5-S1 could prove a cheaper way to demonstrate crucial technologies like high-performance computers, cameras, algorithms, and a new way for satellites to transmit pictures to the ground.

The ELaNa 41 mission CubeSats were selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and were assigned to the mission by NASA’s Launch Services Program based at the Kennedy Space Center. CSLI provides launch opportunities for small satellite payloads built by universities, high schools, NASA Centers, and non-profit organizations.