Private space company loses 2 more NASA satellites

A rocket launched by the aerospace company Astra was disabled prematurely and failed to launch its payload into orbit

The privately launched rocket, which was supposed to put two NASA satellites into orbit, malfunctioned shortly after takeoff on Sunday.

“The top stage shut down early and we didn’t put the payloads into orbit,” aerospace contractor Astra said on Sunday. “We have shared our regrets with NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full data review.”

The Tropics-1 rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with two small NASA satellites that were part of a $40 million US project aimed at improving hurricane predictions. It reached space, but the upper stage motor stopped before reaching the horizontal speed it needed to reach low Earth orbit.

Video footage of the flight showed a flash from the engine’s exhaust when it was shut down about a minute ahead of schedule. The rocket then appeared to tumble before the livestream video feed was interrupted.

Astra has made seven launches of its Venture-class rocket, and Sunday’s failure marked its fifth failure. A rocket launched in February got out of control and fell to Earth, destroying four small NASA satellites. Like the last launch, the February launch involved shoebox-sized satellites and a relatively small, inexpensive delivery vehicle.

“While today’s launch with the Astra did not go as planned, the mission presented a great opportunity for new science and launch possibilities,” NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen said. He added, “While we’re disappointed at this point, we know there’s value in taking risks in our overall NASA science portfolio because innovation is needed to lead the way.”

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NASA’s Hurricane Project called for two Cubesats to be launched on each of its three rocket launches. The idea was to deliver the satellites in three different orbital planes to allow for updated analysis of tropical storms every 45 to 50 minutes, making it easier to predict changes in intensification and tracking. Currently, forecasters must wait four to six hours for the next storm-tracking satellite to fly by.

If the other four cubesats are successfully placed in orbit, NASA will still be able to accelerate monitoring of developing storms, but not to the extent expected with six satellites. NASA is reportedly paying about $32 million for the development and testing of the Cubesats, long with $8 million for the Astra’s launches.