On Sunday, the launch of two CubeSats on an Astra rocket failed to go as planned, with the rocket’s second stage cutting out prematurely. The loss cost NASA two CubeSats that were meant to be part of a small constellation that would track the development of tropical storms. The failure represents yet another setback for a rocket company that has emphasized rapid development and testing-by-launching.
The lost CubeSats were intended to be part of a six-satellite series called TROPICS. With six satellites in three different orbital planes, TROPICS was designed to provide detailed temporal and spatial imaging of precipitation in tropical storms. NASA’s statement on the loss indicates that the agency will still be able to pursue the mission with just four satellites.
As for the failure itself, NASA indicates that this launch was part of a program that tolerated greater risks:
NASA’s Launch Services Program, which is managing the launch service for the mission, continues to work with emerging launch providers to deliver low-cost science missions into orbit with contracts that align with commercial practices, using less NASA oversight to achieve lower launch costs. Small satellites and Class D payloads tolerate relatively high risk and serve as an ideal platform for technical and architecture innovation, contributing to NASA’s science research and technology development.
The agency also indicated that it is standing by to cooperate with the investigation of the failure. Astra’s initial statement on the launch indicated that its rocket’s first stage performed as expected, but the second stage shut down early, leaving the payload short of orbit.
It’s far from the company’s first experience with launch problems. The company has focused on pushing to orbit quickly and identifying and fixing any problems it encounters along the way. As a result, successful launches to orbit are relative rarities in its history. It’s already at what it terms Rocket 3.3, but even that vehicle has seen two successful launches and, as of Sunday, three failures. Each failure has had a different cause: failure of a main stage engine, failure of stage separation, and now premature shutdown of the upper stage.
The company hopes to launch its more powerful Rocket 4 before the year is over, so it may move on to a new vehicle before it fully understands what went wrong with this launch.