Astra, a California-based startup aimed at launching small satellites, successfully launched its rocket to space for the first time yesterday from Alaska, but the vehicle barely missed reaching the right speed to achieve orbit. Still, the company says the test flight was a major success and is preparing to fly its next rocket, this time with a payload on board.
“This far exceeded our team’s expectations,” Chris Kemp, Astra’s CEO, said on a press call.
Astra’s rocket, dubbed 3.2, took off from Alaska’s Pacific Spaceport Complex just before 4PM ET on Tuesday. The vehicle successfully climbed to space, performing all of its expected engine burns and separations. The rocket reached its target altitude of 390 kilometers, or about 242 miles, and a final speed of 7.2 kilometers per second, or more than 16,000 miles per hour. Unfortunately, that was just short of 7.68 kilometers per second, the speed the company needed to reach to make orbit.
A quick video recap of our 8.5-minute flight to space today! pic.twitter.com/gvElF4fbAZ— Astra (@Astra) December 16, 2020
“We were just a few short seconds from putting the upper stage of the spacecraft in orbit,” Kemp says.
The company says it’s an easy fix for the next flight. Kemp blamed the problem on some residual liquid oxygen propellant leftover in the rocket’s tanks, which prevented the vehicle from getting where it needed to go. On the next flight, engineers simply need to adjust the ratio of the propellants in the tanks, Kemp said. “There are absolutely no design changes and no general hardware changes and no software changes,” Adam London, Astra’s co-founder, said during the call.
Kemp says that Astra has another rocket ready to go and a payload ready to fly on it. The company didn’t fly a payload on this flight, but the rocket did signal that it would have released a payload just fine if there had been one on the mission.
“This outcome surprised us and is certainly a nice Christmas present for the whole team,” Kemp said.
This flight comes three months after Astra’s last launch attempt out of Alaska in September. During that flight, Astra’s Rocket 3.1, successfully took off, but the rocket started to drift and the vehicle’s engines shut down early. The rocket then fell back to Earth and exploded on impact.
Formed in 2016, Astra is one of many startups dedicated to launching small satellites into space. So far, just one other launch company, Rocket Lab, has been successful in the arena and has been launching small payloads into orbit since 2018. Astra has claimed that just one launch on its rocket will cost $2.5 million.