NASA-funded satellites lost in setback for small-rocket startup Astra

Four tiny NASA-funded satellites were lost en route to space on Thursday after launching atop a rocket built by Astra Space, a small, publicly traded rocket start-up based in Alameda, California.

The satellites were small experimental devices called cubesats, and their loss could set back the research projects of the institutions that built them. But for Astra, the setback could be bigger. A successful flight on Thursday would have helped him advance in a growing group of launch startups scrambling to come up with cheaper methods of launching objects into space. And the company’s latest launch failure shows how difficult it is to join the club.

The company’s 3.3 rocket blasted off from a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3 p.m. Eastern time to cheers from a crowd of Astra employees shown on live video . But minutes after launch, as the rocket’s second-stage booster was scheduled to shut down for its journey deeper into orbit, onboard cameras showed the booster spiraling out of control.

“Unfortunately, we have heard that an issue was encountered during the flight which prevented the delivery of our customers’ payloads to orbit today,” said Carolina Grossman, product manager for Astra, commenting during the interview. a company-sponsored launch live stream.

As the spinning spacecraft’s onboard camera captured glimpses of Earth and space, the stock market experienced its own swings. Astra’s share price fell so rapidly that the New York Stock Exchange halted trading in its shares for about 22 minutes, then halted it again shortly after trading resumed for about five minutes.

The botched mission comes nearly three months after the company first reached orbit and about six years since its founding in 2016, putting its campaign of test launches and string of failures within a longer time frame. short than that of other launch companies.

“We encountered a problem during today’s flight,” said Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra. said on Twitter. “I am deeply sorry that we were unable to deliver our customers’ payloads. I’m with the team reviewing the data, and we’ll provide more information as soon as possible. »

With Thursday’s launch for NASA, Astra effectively kicked off its launch activity and was trying to join more established players in the field like SpaceX; Rocket Lab, the California-based company that has carried out around two dozen launches from New Zealand since 2018; and Virgin Orbit, the company founded by Richard Branson that drops a rocket from a modified Boeing 747 to reach orbit.

The Astra flight was to be a key demonstration of the company’s goal of launching its rocket from more than one launch pad in the United States; all of its previous missions have taken off from Alaska. The flight was also launched using the Federal Aviation Administration’s new licensing procedures. The agency, which oversees the safety of ground launches, has in recent years sought to modernize its oversight functions amid an increase in spaceflight activity prompted by an array of new rocket companies.

Many other companies like Astra aim to reach orbit and start their own commercial satellite launch activities.

Firefly Aerospace, a Texas-based startup, conducted an unsuccessful test launch last September in California. Its progress has since been crippled by a US foreign investment panel, which late last year raised national security concerns about a Ukraine-linked investor being forced to sell its stake. before the company can resume trial launches.

Other companies are further from the launch pad. Relativity Space, a company based in Long Beach, Calif., will rely on a small 3D-printed rocket called Terran 1, which aims to launch from Florida later this year. ABL Space Systems, another small launch company based in El Segundo, Calif., is targeting mid-2022 for the launch of its RS1 rocket.

While NASA was a customer of Astra on Thursday, the US national security apparatus played a key role in shaping the ambitions of these smaller launch companies. As Earth’s orbit becomes a battleground for military and geopolitical dominance, Astra and other companies are looking to be able to launch on short notice from several potential sites. This would support a Pentagon goal of having the ability to launch spy satellites or other tightly held military assets into space in an emergency.

Astra’s failed trip to orbit on Thursday highlights the daunting challenges for all these small companies. It reached space on its second launch test in late 2020, but failed to get into orbit. On its next test months later, the rocket waddled sideways on the launch pad before taking off, again failing to get into orbit. The company finally reached orbit in November 2021, deploying a US Space Force test payload.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” said Bradley Smith, director of NASA launch services who oversees the program that funded Astra’s mission on Saturday. “When a company publicly declares that it is 12 months from launch, it is typically two and a half years away from hitting the pad. That’s what our measurements tell us.

“And, in the first three launches of a particular payload, one of those three launches will fail a third of the time,” he said.

Bringing a rocket ship to business operations for a diverse landscape of customers is no easy task, and many businesses have created new revenue streams to stay afloat. Astra, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit have all gone public over the past year through mergers with Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or SPACs. Astra reaped a cash boost of $500 million on its stock listing. Virgin Orbit grossed $483 million.

“After demonstrating our technology and getting it into service,” Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart said of his company’s LauncherOne rocket, “it became clear that we needed to accelerate, and we needed capital to get there.”

Mr. Hart added that going public through a SPAC opens up other opportunities. “It puts us in a place that can give us other tools and flexibility,” he said.

But going public at the start of a rocket venture also adds more pressure for success at a time when engineers are still experimenting and learning about rocket development and when failure is foreseen. Investors, however, can potentially view incidents on and off the launch pad as business risks, as implied by Thursday’s brief freeze in Astra shares.

While companies like Astra have barely come off the launch pad, they may also be looking to diversify their business.

Caleb Henry, launch industry analyst at Quilty Analytics, said some of the companies that have gone public using SPACs see “a need to buy other companies in order to get closer to the revenue projections they have placed on the market.”

Astra’s Mr Kemp said buying small companies that specialize in building high-tech spacecraft components will be key to the growth of many small launch companies after their IPOs, a strategy he suggested was aimed at extending business services.

Astra last year acquired Apollo Fusion, a company specializing in small electric propulsion systems for space satellites. Rocket Lab, which has many successful launches to date, took similar steps last year when it acquired three companies after its IPO in August, spending about $162 million in total.

These recent efforts to expand revenue streams are partly the result of shifting launch demand from satellite companies. Companies developing vast networks of thousands of internet-broadcasting satellites, like Amazon’s Project Kuiper, are looking for ever-larger rockets to blast large satellite payloads into space simultaneously. Some companies, like Relativity and Rocket Lab, plan to build larger rockets to meet this demand.

“It’s a big, bold bet, but I think it’s the right one because it’s very clear that’s where the market opportunity really is,” said Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, about his company’s plan to begin developing a larger rocket, Terran R, even before its first rocket launches.

ABL Space Systems could follow the trend by designing larger rockets. “We see the same sources of demand driving these decisions, and we expect to meet them,” said Dan Piemont, the company’s chief financial officer. The company’s first launch of its smallest rocket could be delayed from early 2022 after a test crash in January.

Astra has not revealed any plans for a larger rocket. But it maintained a goal of being able to launch up to 1,102 pounds of satellites into low Earth orbit in the future, more than double the capacity of its current rocket.

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