NASA weather satellite launch ends in disaster

Three pairs of satellites make up the TROPICS constellation; they were to work in concert to provide microwave observations of storms on Earth, measuring a storm’s precipitation, temperature, and humidity as often as every 50 minutes. Image: NASA

A NASA weather satellite launch from the Florida Spacecoast ended in disaster yesterday, with the rocket responsible for deploying the satellites into orbit suffering an unknown problem after reaching space.

Known as the TROPICS mission, short for Time-Resolved Observation of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats, two small cubesats from the 6-smallsat constellation were scheduled to be launched by Astra yesterday. Astra is an Alameda, Calif.-based company that has had a mix of success and failure with its recent attempts to deploy missions in space.

Unfortunately for NASA, Astra suffered yet another setback when its 3.3 rocket, also known as LV0010, failed to properly insert the cubesats into orbit.

View of Rocket 3.3 in Florida before its ill-fated mission to space carrying the TROPICS weather satellites into orbit.  Picture: Astra
View of Rocket 3.3 in Florida before its ill-fated mission to space carrying the TROPICS weather satellites into orbit. Picture: Astra

Chris Kemp, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Astra, wrote: “We regret that we cannot deliver the first two TROPICS satellites. Nothing is more important to our team than the trust of our customers and the successful delivery of the remaining TROPICS satellites. We’ll share more when we’ve fully reviewed the data.

Astra added: “We had a first nominal flight. The upper stage shut down early and we didn’t deliver the payloads to orbit. We shared our regrets with NASA aand payload team.

The FAA will investigate what went wrong, halting additional launch attempts for the remainder of the TROPICS series. As an FAA licensed mission, the FAA and Astra will lead the investigation to understand what happened during the launch of TROPICS-1. NASA will contribute all necessary expertise, but would expect to put the launch effort with Astra on hold while an investigation is underway to ensure we move forward when we are ready.

A NASA spokesperson said: “While we are disappointed with the loss of the two TROPICS CubeSats, the mission is part of NASA’s Earth Venture program, which provides opportunities for lower-cost, high-risk missions. . Despite the loss of the first two of the six satellites, the TROPICS constellation will still achieve its scientific objectives with the remaining four CubeSats spread over two orbits. With four satellites, TROPICS will always provide better time-resolved observations of tropical cyclones than traditional observing methods.

NASA’s Launch Services Program, which manages the mission’s launch service, continues to work with emerging launch vendors to deliver low-cost science missions to orbit with contracts that align with commercial practices. , using less NASA oversight to reduce launch costs. Small satellites and Class D payloads tolerate relatively high risk and provide an ideal platform for engineering and architectural innovation, contributing to NASA’s scientific research and technology development.

NASA said it wants to continue working with these new, lower-cost, high-risk launch companies to drive innovation within the space industry. “We recognize the inherent risks of a new launch vendor and will lend our assistance if needed,” NASA added.

Astra has had a series of bad luck with its rockets. In March 2020, a launch pad fire destroyed Astra’s first rocket. On September 11, 2020, Astra attempted another orbital rocket launch; after clearing the launch pad, it fell and fell back to Earth, exploding on impact. On December 15, 2020, a rocket launch from Kodiak Island, Alaska successfully blasted off from its launch pad, but failed to reach its intended orbit. On August 28, 2021, another Rocket 3.3 vehicle failed to reach orbit, eventually crashing into the ocean downstream.

But not all Astra missions have been disasters.

On November 20, 2021, another Astra-launched 3.3 rocket successfully reached orbit after launching from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska, carrying a demonstration payload for the US Space Force. By achieving an orbital launch in just five years and one month after Astra was founded, Astra became the fastest company to reach orbit with a privately developed liquid-fuel rocket in a year less than SpaceX at six and four months.

On March 15, 2022, Astra has another successful launch, delivering the NearSpace S4 Crossover satellite to space.


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