NASA-Funded Satellites Lost in Setback for Astra, a Small Rocket Launch Start-Up

Four small NASA-funded small satellites were lost in space on Thursday after launching on top of a rocket made by Astra Space, a small, publicly traded rocket start-up in Almeida, Calif.

Satellites were small experimental devices known as cubesets, and their loss could draw back the research projects of the organizations that created them. But for Astra, the shock could be more significant. A successful flight on Thursday would have helped it move into a growing cadre of launch start-ups rather than jockeys to provide cheaper methods of lifting objects into space. And the company’s latest launch failure shows just how difficult it is to join the club.

The company’s 3.3 rocket took off from the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Fla. At 3 a.m., broadcast live from a crowd of Astra employees. But shortly after the launch, the rocket’s second stage booster was about to crash for its journey deeper into orbit, with onboard cameras showing the booster tumbling out of control.

“Unfortunately, we heard that we experienced an issue during the flight that prevented the delivery of our customer payloads into orbit today,” said Carolina Grossman, Astra’s product director who was commenting during the launch company-sponsored livestream.

As the spinning spacecraft’s onboard camera captured glimpses of Earth and space, the stock market went through its own activities. Astra’s share price plummeted so much that the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading on its stock for about 22 minutes, then resumed trading shortly after it resumed trading for about five minutes.

This ambiguous mission comes in 2016, almost three months after the company first arrived in orbit, and almost six years after its establishment, in 2016, putting its test projection and string of failures under a faster timeline than other launch companies.

“We had a problem with today’s flight,” said Chris Kemp, Astra’s chief executive. Said on Twitter“I am very sorry that we were not able to deliver our customer’s payloads. I am with the team looking at the data and we will provide more information as soon as possible.

With Thursday’s launch for NASA, Astra has effectively started its launch business and is trying to connect with more established players in a field like SpaceX; Rocket Lab, a California-based company that has completed nearly two dozen launches from New Zealand since 2018; And Virgin Orbit, a company founded by Richard Branson that launches rockets from a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet to reach orbit.

The Astra Flight was a major demonstration of the company’s goal of launching its rocket from more than one launchpad in the United States; All of his previous missions were removed from Alaska. Flight has also been launched using the new Federal Aviation Administration licensing procedures. The agency, which monitors ground launch safety, has called for modernization of its surveillance duties amid an increase in spaceflight activity brought on by new rocket companies in recent years.

Many more companies like Astra aim to reach orbit and launch their own commercial satellite launch business.

Firefly Aerospace, a Texas-based start-up, conducted a failed test launch last September in California. Since then, its progress has been paralyzed by the US Foreign Investment Panel, which late last year raised national security concerns over a Ukrainian-linked investor who was forced to sell its stake before the company could resume a test launch.

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

While NASA was a customer of Astra on Thursday, the US national security apparatus played a key role in shaping the ambitions of these small-launch companies. As Earth’s orbit becomes a battleground for military and geopolitical domination, Astra and other companies are exploring the possibility of launching at short notice from multiple potential sites. It will support the Pentagon’s goal of launching reconnaissance satellites or other closely guarded military assets in space in case of an emergency.

Astra’s orbital cruise 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 go into orbit. Months after its next test, the rocket hung sideways on the launchpad before taking off, again failing to get into orbit. The company finally reached orbit in November 2021, deploying test payloads from the US Space Force.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” said Bradley Smith, director of NASA’s launch services who oversees the Astra mission funding program on Saturday. “When a company says publicly that they are 12 months after launch, they are usually two and a half years away from receiving the pad. Our matrix tells us the same thing.

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

Bringing rockets to commercial operations for a diverse landscape of customers is no easy task, and many companies have created new sources of revenue to keep them afloat. Astra, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit have all been revealed in the past year through mergers with Special Purpose Acquisition Companies or SPACs. It had a cash increase of $ 500 million when Astra listed it. Virgin Orbit brought in $ 483 million.

Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said of his company’s LauncherOne rocket, “After we demonstrated our technology and put it into operation, it became clear that we needed to move forward and that we needed capital to do so.”

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

But going public during the rocket company’s infancy adds more pressure to success at a time when engineers are still experimenting and learning about rocket development and when failure is expected. Investors, however, may see events on and off the launchpad as business risks, as Astra’s stock briefly indicated Thursday’s freeze.

While companies like Astra are rarely out of the launchpad, they may also look to diversify their business.

Caleb Henry, a launch industry analyst at Quality Analytics, said some of the companies that went public using SPAC felt that “they need to buy other companies to get closer to the revenue estimates they put on the market.”

Mr. Astrana Kempe said the acquisition of small companies that specialize in the manufacture of high-tech spacecraft components would be important for the development of many small-launch companies after going public, a strategy he suggested aimed at expanding business services.

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

Those recent efforts to expand sources of revenue are partly the result of the changing demand for satellite companies launching. Companies developing a vast network of thousands of Internet-beaming satellites, such as Amazon’s Kuiper project, are exploring more and larger rockets to simultaneously launch large payloads of satellites into space. Some companies, such as Relativity and Rocket Lab, plan to build larger rockets to tap that demand.

“It’s a big bold bet, but I think it’s worth it, because it’s very clear where the market really is.” Said about the plan. Just before its first rocket launch.

ABL space systems can follow the trend of designing larger rockets. “We’ve seen the same sources of demand that drive those decisions and we expect them to respond,” said Dan Pimont, the company’s chief financial officer. The company’s first launch of its small rocket could be delayed to early 2022 after a test accident in January.

Astra has not announced any plans for a larger rocket. But it aims to be able to launch as many as 1,102 pounds of satellites into low-Earth orbit in the future, more than double its current rocket capacity.

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