The first of three launches to deploy a fleet of six small NASA hurricane research satellites failed minutes after liftoff at 1:43 p.m. EDT (1743 GMT) Sunday from Cape Canaveral. The upper stage engine of Astra’s small commercial launch vehicle shut down prematurely, leading to the loss of NASA’s first two TROPICS nanosatellites.
Astra has been counting down more than 90 minutes to resolve a concern over the liquid oxygen conditioning on the rocket. Stormy weather delayed the rocket’s launch for a two-hour window Sunday from Space Launch Complex 46, a commercial launch facility operated by Space Florida near the eastern tip of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
But the rocket’s upper stage shut down early at about T+plus 7 minutes and 21 seconds, about a minute less than the engine’s predicted burn time.
The rocket that flew on Sunday, called Rocket 3.3 or LV0010, is the smallest orbital-class launcher currently in service in the world. It is about 13.1 meters (43 feet) tall and weighs about as much as a small business jet when fully fueled.
The two TROPICS satellites were each about the size of a loaf of bread or a shoebox. They were stuffed with miniaturized sensor technology that once had to fly on a satellite larger than a refrigerator.
The microwave radiometers on each of the TROPICS satellites were designed to collect imagery, temperature and humidity data on tropical cyclones. Equipped with a fleet of satellites, the TROPICS mission will be able to follow the rapid evolution of cyclones at a rate of at least once per hour.
“These are important variables because they can be related to the intensity of the storm, and even the potential for future intensification,” said William Blackwell, principal investigator of the TROPICS mission at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. “So we try to do these measurements with a relatively high revisit. That’s really the key new feature that the TROPICS constellation provides, it’s a better storm revisit.
The TROPICS satellite fleet is designed to collect hurricane data with a frequency of approximately once every 50 minutes. NASA says it only needs four operational satellites, or two successful Astra launches, to meet minimum mission success criteria. The other four TROPICS satellites are under construction and awaiting launch on future Astra rockets.
TROPICS stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats. The mission has a total cost of around $40 million, according to NASA.
Each TROPICS satellite, assembled by Blue Canyon Technologies in Colorado, weighs about 11.8 pounds (5.3 kilograms).
Astra aimed to launch the two TROPICS satellites into an orbit about 357 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 29.75 degrees to the equator. The low-inclination orbit selected for the TROPICS mission will focus satellite observations on tropical cyclone development hotspots.
Founded in 2016, Astra aspires to eventually launch daily missions to carry small satellites into orbit for a range of customers, including the US military, commercial companies and NASA. With Sunday’s failure, the company managed to reach orbit in two of seven trials.
Astra’s most recent flight in March marked the first time the company has placed functioning satellites into orbit, after lifting off from Kodiak Island, Alaska. Astra’s previous launch in February, which left Cape Canaveral, failed to place a payload of NASA-sponsored CubeSats into orbit.
NASA officials were aware of the risk of flying satellites on a relatively untested new launch vehicle. TROPICS is part of NASA’s Earth Venture program, a series of low-cost missions designed for Earth science research. NASA assumes more risk for Venture-class missions.
Astra’s first launch with two TROPICS satellites began with the ignition of Rocket 3.3’s five kerosene-fueled engines at pad 46. Delphin engines propelled the launcher off the pad with 32,500 pounds of thrust, propelling the rocket toward east-northeast of Cape Canaveral.
The first-stage engine shutdown occurred three minutes after liftoff, followed by the separation of the rocket’s payload fairing, which covered the upper stage and TROPICS payloads during climb through the atmosphere. Then the rocket’s booster stage was jettisoned to fall into the Atlantic, allowing the upper stage to ignite its small 740-pound thrust during a five-minute planned burn to accelerate to orbital speed.
The deployment of the TROPICS satellites was scheduled at T+ plus 8 minutes and 40 seconds, according to a mission schedule published by Astra.
But the engine stopped about a minute earlier, before it had reached enough speed for everyone to enter a stable orbit. The satellites and upper stage were to fall back into the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles downriver from Cape Canaveral.
If the launch had been successful, the satellites were scheduled to deploy solar panels to begin generating electricity, and ground crews would have operated the TROPICS spacecraft for several weeks of testing and verification.
The second and third TROPICS launches – scheduled for late June and mid-July before Sunday’s failure – will aim to deploy the next four satellites into precise orbital planes, giving the constellation the proper spacing to allow regular cyclone flybys.
At the start of Sunday’s mission, NASA officials said the satellites should all be collected by August, just in time for the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, according to program scientist Will McCarty. from NASA for the mission. The mission is designed for at least one year of scientific observations.
But the impact of the failed launch on the next two TROPICS launches was not immediately clear. It may take weeks or months for Astra to identify and fix the cause of Sunday’s failure.
Many CubeSats travel to space in carpool launches, allowing operators to take advantage of reduced costs by consolidating their payloads onto a single large rocket. But TROPICS satellites need dedicated launches to reach their precise orbital destinations.
“We want to space out spacecraft as much as possible and keep them above the tropical cyclone belt,” Blackwell said ahead of Sunday’s launch. “This global setup allows us to do that, but it requires three separate dedicated launchers.”
Astra beat out bids from SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Momentus largely due to their lower cost proposition, according to NASA. NASA is paying Astra nearly $8 million for the entire three-launch campaign.
ROCKET: Astra Rocket 3.3 (LV0010)
PAYLOAD: TROPICS-1 (two satellites)
LAUNCH SITE: SLC-46, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida
RELEASE DATE: June 12, 2022
LAUNCH WINDOW: 12:00-2:00 p.m. EDT (4:00-6:00 p.m. GMT)
WEATHER FORECAST: 60% to 90% chance of violating weather constraints
BOOSTER RECOVERY: None
LAUNCH AZIMUTH: East-northeast
TARGET ORBIT: 357 miles (550 kilometers), 29.75 degree incline
- T+00:00: Takeoff
- T+00:06: Start presentation
- T+01:10: Maximum air pressure (Max-Q)
- T+03:00: First stage main engine shutdown (MECO)
- T+03:05: Release of the payload fairing
- T+03:10: Floor separation
- T+03:15: Second stage engine ignition
- T+08:30: Second stage engine shutdown (SECO)
- T+08:40: TROPICS deployment
- 7th orbital launch attempt by Astra
- 5th launch of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 configuration
- 2nd Astra launch from Florida
- 5th orbital launch attempt from pad 46
- 3rd Astra launch of 2022
- 24th orbital launch based at Cape Canaveral in 2022
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