NASA lost two small weather satellites this Sunday (12) during the liftoff of the commercial rocket Rocket 3.3, from startup Astra. This is the space company’s second launch failure this year.
The mission called TROPICS consisted of putting into orbit two twin nanosatellites – each one the size of a shoebox –, with the objective of monitoring cyclones and hurricanes.
The equipment would be part of a fleet of six small, low-cost satellites to measure the temperature, humidity and other parameters of tropical storms every 50 minutes.
The Astra rocket took off at 2:43 pm (Brasilia time), from Cape Canaveral, in the United States. However, the Rocket 3.3’s second stage engine shut down prematurely one minute ahead of schedule – about 7 minutes after launch – before the satellites reached their planned orbit. The launch video can be seen below:
As the rocket did not reach the speed to reach a stable orbit, the upper stage of the rocket, as well as NASA’s satellites, re-entered the atmosphere and likely disintegrated, with potential small fragments falling into the Atlantic Ocean.
NASA says disappointed but optimistic
As pointed out by the website Spaceflight Now, before the launch this Sunday, NASA had already stated that the mission would be a success if at least four of the six TROPICS nanosatellites are placed in orbit. Initially, Astra intended to launch these other four satellites later this month and mid-July, however, with the recent failure, it is possible that the schedule will change.
On Twitter, Chris Kemp, co-founder and CEO of Astra, lamented the failure to launch and the destruction of the two NASA satellites. “Nothing is more important to our team than the trust of our customers and the successful delivery of the remaining TROPICS satellites. We will share more when we fully review the data,” Kemp said.
Despite the disappointment, the space agency said it was optimistic about the development of the Astra rocket. “While today’s launch with Astra did not go as planned, the mission offered a great opportunity for new science and launch capabilities,” said NASA’s Science Division Associate Administrator Thomas Zuburchen.
Astra’s failures and successes
Founded in 2016, Astra develops rockets to provide the service of launching commercial payloads into Earth orbit. The launch of the TROPICS mission satellites is part of a contract signed in February between NASA and the startup, worth US$7.5 million.
To date, Astra has managed to launch two successful missions over seven attempts. In February, the startup attempted to launch a series of payloads, but the rocket failed about three minutes after liftoff. More recently, in March, Astra was able to successfully deploy functional satellites into orbit.
“The next two releases [da TROPICS] they need to work… Our team understands what’s at stake”, said the CEO of Astra.