by Douglas Messier
The second stage of an Astra Space Rocket 3.3 rocket failed less than a minute before planned shutdown on Sunday, sending two NASA TROPICS mission satellites plunging into the atmosphere instead of entering orbit.
On board video showed a sudden flash in the second-stage Aether engine at 7 minutes 21 seconds into the flight before the stage appeared to slowly tumble out of control. Astra Space confirmed in a Tweet that the Aether engine had shut down prematurely. The company said the rocket’s first stage, powered by five Delphin engines, performed as designed after liftoff from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
TROPICS, which stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats, was designed as a constellation of six satellites focused on studying tropical cyclones. Astra had been scheduled to launch four other TROPICS satellites on two launches later this year. Those launches will be delayed while a launch failure investigation is conducted.
“Despite a loss of the first two of six satellites, the TROPICS constellation will still meet its science objectives with the four remaining CubeSats distributed in two orbits. With four satellites, TROPICS will still provide improved time-resolved observations of tropical cyclones compared to traditional observing methods,” NASA said in a press release.
Astra Space’s launch record slumped to two successes, five failures and an additional booster destroyed on the launch pad by a fire. The company flew two suborbital flight tests that the company declared a success but outsiders have judged to be a failure.
It was Astra Space’s second failure to launch a NASA funded mission in as many attempts. In February, Rocket 3.3 failed to orbit four CubeSats whose launch was funded under the space agency’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program, which orbits spacecraft built by university students.
Astra’s stock closed at $2.02 on Friday, later rising to $2.14 in after-hours trading. Astra is one of a number of companies that went public after being acquired with a special purpose acquisition company, a so-called “blank check” company that was already publicly traded whose only goal was to take another firm public.