Small satellite launcher Astra identifies cause behind strange sideways rocket launch

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Small satellite launcher Astra says it has identified the culprit behind its bizarre launch failure in August, which caused the company’s rocket to hover sideways right after takeoff before briefly climbing into the sky. After implementing some design changes, Astra says it is ready to try again, with another launch attempt called LV0007 set as early as October 27th.

This will be Astra’s fifth attempt to reach orbit with one of its rockets, which primarily take off from Kodiak, Alaska. The company first tried to send its vehicle to orbit for a DARPA launch challenge in March 2020 but failed to get the rocket off the ground in time to meet the competition’s deadline. The vehicle then exploded on its launchpad a few weeks later. After that, Astra made three more tries throughout 2020 and 2021, where the rockets did actually take flight. The first launch lasted roughly 30 seconds before the rocket’s engines cut off and the vehicle fell back to Earth. Astra did actually reach space with the second flight, but just barely missed reaching orbit.

Astra’s third attempt on August 28th, 2021 caught people’s attention with its strange maneuvering. Right after takeoff, the rocket briefly glided off the ground and then swept to the side after one of its five main engines shut down early. The vehicle then climbed into the sky after a few seconds and even managed to reach an altitude of 31 miles before the flight crews terminated the launch two minutes and 30 seconds into the launch. Astra says that there was a leakage of the rocket’s propellant that caused the engine to cut off early, which was “something we hadn’t seen before.” The company claims to have made some design changes to ensure that the same failure doesn’t happen again.

“Data from the two-and-a-half minute flight provided valuable insights that we have incorporated into LV0007 and future launch vehicles,” said Chris Kemp, founder and CEO of Astra.

Astra’s sideways failure came less than two months after the company successfully went public through a SPAC merger. The company’s stocks drastically fell the Monday following the botched launch attempt. In September, Astra inked a secret $30 million deal with rival launch company Firefly Aerospace, which would allow the company to manufacture Firefly’s Reaver rocket engine. Astra’s ultimate goal is to launch small satellites on its rockets, which stand at just 43 feet tall.

The company’s next launch out of Kodiak, Alaska will loft a test payload for the Space Test Program, which oversees experimental space launches for the US Department of Defense. Astra says its launch window for the mission first opens on October 27th and ends on October 31st. If for some reason the rocket doesn’t fly during that time, the company can try again during another window that runs from November 5th through November 12th.

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