Two NASA satellites lost after latest Astra launch fails

NASA's $11K TROPICS CubeSats were supposed to monitor monitor tropical storms and hurricanes.
Christopher McFadden
Astra Launch of TROPICS-1 for NASA.Source: NASASpaceflight/YouTube

On Sunday at 1:43 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (17:43 Coordinated Universal Time), the first of three launches of NASA's Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) CubeSat satellites took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Launched in one of Astra's LV0010 launch vehicles, this event marked the seventh orbital launch attempt by the company.

Following a standard first stage burn sequence, the upper stage engine shut down prematurely. This resulted in the loss of both the launch vehicle and its precious cargo.

If launched successfully, TROPICS-1's intended orbit would have put it at a 500-kilometer altitude with a 29.75-degree inclination. This mid-inclination orbit made Cape Canaveral the best launch site choice, unlike Astra's other launch location in Kodiak, Alaska, which is more advantageous for polar orbit missions.

TROPICS was intended to include a total of six satellites launched in three Astra Rocket 3.3 missions. In June 2021, the SpaceX Transporter-2 mission successfully launched a seventh satellite that served as a pathfinder.

Blue Canyon Technologies constructs the 3U CubeSats, which are operated for NASA by the Lincoln Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each CubeSat costs around 25,000 Euros (roughly $11,000) to make. 

In order to investigate and monitor tropical storms and hurricanes, each satellite is equipped with a passive microwave spectrometer and a radiometer payload.

The satellite constellation was designed to be fully functional even if only four of the six satellites reach orbit or if only two of the three launches are successful. However, if all six satellites had been successfully launched into orbit, the mission's scientific data would have been enhanced through a higher revisit rate.

TROPICS-1 was Astra's sixth orbital launch attempt since Rocket 3.1's maiden flight in September 2020. In November 2021, Astra successfully placed the upper stage of the LV0007 vehicle, which was carrying a payload for the United States Space Force, into orbit from Kodiak, following a series of unsuccessful orbital test flights.

Why did the launch fail? 

The next launch, LV0008 in February 2022, marked Astra's first from Cape Canaveral's SLC-46 and the company's first for NASA. However, the ELaNa-41 mission failed to deploy multiple CubeSats into orbit due to a fairing separation failure. The following mission, LV0009 from Kodiak, was the first to successfully deploy payloads into orbit for Spaceflight Inc. in March 2022.

Transported by truck from Astra's headquarters and plant in Alameda, California, the LV0010 vehicle arrived at Cape Canaveral in May. In preparation for launch, a static fire test was conducted at SLC-46 on June 1 to test all five Delphin engines on the first stage and all ground support systems.

At T0, the Delphin engines re-ignited to propel the vehicle off the pad. Six seconds later, the rocket began tilting downrange to attain the necessary horizontal velocity for orbital insertion.

The vehicle then traversed the region of maximum dynamic pressure, or Max-Q, roughly 1 minute and 10 seconds after launch. The first stage then continued to propel the launch vehicle until T+3 minutes, when all five engines were shut down by the craft's Main Engine Cutoff (MECO).

Five seconds later, the protective covering (fairing) that shields the payloads and the upper stage during ascent suddenly split. Another five seconds later, the upper stage separated, and at T+ 3 minutes and 15 seconds, the upper stage's Aether engine fired to begin a scheduled five-minute burn.

Due to a technical difficulty with the upper stage, this burn was terminated prematurely, leaving the vehicle in a suborbital trajectory, culminating in the failure of the mission. The last four TROPICS satellites are scheduled to be launched from Cape Canaveral on the LV0011 and LV0012 Astra missions.

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