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Astra reaches orbit for first time, clearing way for commercial launches



Astra reaches orbit for first time, clearing way for commercial launches

Astra LV0007 Reaches Orbit from Astra on Vimeo.

Astra launched its first rocket into orbit from Alaska early Saturday after falling short on three previous tries, an achievement company officials said will unlock “tremendous demand” for its small satellite launch service.

Company officials did not disclose a scheduled for its next mission in a virtual briefing with reporters Monday. But a NASA official said Astra’s next mission will carry six small CubeSat payloads into orbit for the space agency, and could take off before the end of the year.

Astra’s rocket, designated Rocket 3.3 or LV0007, launched from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, at 1:16 a.m. EST (0616 GMT) Saturday. Heading south from Kodiak, the 43-foot-tall (13.1-meter), 4.3-foot-wide (1.3-meter) rocket soared high above the Pacific Ocean, then arced downrange to gain speed on the way to orbit.

Liftoff occurred at 9:16 p.m. local time in Alaska, where a lean crew of five Astra engineers and technicians readied the rocket for liftoff in recent weeks.

Five kerosene-fueled Delphin engines, combining to generate 32,500 pounds of sea level thrust, powered the launcher in the first 2 minutes, 50 seconds, of the mission. The first stage jettisoned a few seconds later, followed by separation of the payload shroud on top of the rocket.

A single Aether engine ignited on the second stage to accelerate the rocket to orbital velocity, reaching a speed of more than 17,000 mph (7.61 kilometers per second) at cutoff nearly nine minutes after liftoff.

The test flight delivered a non-separating payload to orbit for the U.S. Space Force, which named the mission STP-27AD2. The Space Force considered the launch a demonstration mission to evaluate Astra’s launch capabilities for future military satellites.

Military tracking data showed the rocket reached an orbit between 272 miles and 315 miles (438-by-507 kilometers) in altitude, with an inclination angle of 86 degrees to the equator.

Benjamin Lyon, Astra’s chief engineer, called it a “phenomenal flight,” adding that the rocket hit its altitude and inclination targets.

“This is a pretty historic milestone for Astra,” said Chris Kemp, Astra’s founder, chairman, and CEO. “Just over five years since we incorporated Astra and started building the facility we’re now in, we were able to learn our way to orbit, as we like to say, launch by launch, increasing the capabilities and operational efficiencies of our system along the way.

“And we’re now focusing on delivering for our customers and scaling up the production and the launch cadence of our system,” Kemp said.

Founded in 2016, Astra designed its rockets to deploy small payloads, pursuing a launch market to deliver CubeSats, nanosatellites, and microsatellites into orbit. With Saturday’s successful flight, Astra reached orbit a little more than five years since its founding, beating the six-year mark from the establishment of SpaceX until its first orbital flight with the Falcon 1 rocket in 2008.

Astra officials have said they eventually hope to launch daily, tapping demand from the U.S. military, commercial companies, and scientific institutions to rapidly deploy new space capabilities.

To do that, Astra wants to build rockets on an assembly line at its factory in Alameda, California, then ship the vehicles — along with required ground infrastructure — to distant launch sites in standard cargo trailers. A small team with less than a dozen engineers and technicians can set up the rocket and its mobile launch pad at an austere launch site in a few days.

Kemp said the successful launch into orbit proved Astra’s iterative development process, where engineers design, build, and test hardware and software, then rapidly redesign and retest systems if they fail.

“While it is less expensive for one of these smaller vehicles to fail, it still takes time, and time is money,” Kemp said.

Astra’s first orbit-capable rocket, named Rocket 3.0, was supposed to launch in February 2020 in an effort sponsored by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to demonstrate responsive launch capability. But the mission did not get off the ground before DARPA’s deadline after a series of delays.

Astra intended to try again to launch Rocket 3.0, but the vehicle was destroyed in an accident during a wet dress rehearsal, or fueling test, at Kodiak.

Astra’s first orbital launch attempt Sept. 11, 2020, using Rocket 3.1, ended 30 seconds after takeoff when a guidance system problem caused the rocket to drift off course. In response, the rocket’s engines were commanded to shut down and the vehicle fell back to the spaceport on Kodiak Island.

On Dec. 15, 2020, Astra’s Rocket 3.2 nearly achieved enough speed to enter orbit. But the upper stage engine shut down just seconds before it was supposed to cut off, leaving the rocket just shy of orbital velocity. The vehicle re-entered the atmosphere, and most of it burned up.

Rocket 3.3 debuted several changes to Astra’s design when it launched for the first time Aug. 28.

It’s around 5 feet taller than the rockets Astra used for its first two orbital launch attempts last year. With stretched first stage tanks to hold more propellant, and a lighter second stage, the new rocket configuration can carry heavier cargo into orbit, according to Astra.

Astra also implemented a closed-loop control system on the first Rocket 3.3 mission, also called LV0006, to fix a propellant mixture issue that caused the previous launch last December to fail before seconds before reaching orbit.

The Aug. 28 mission was cut short by the premature shutdown of one of the rocket’s five kerosene-fueled Delphin main engines. The loss of thrust caused the rocket to briefly falter just above the launch pad, then veer sideways before the four remaining engines slowly propelled the vehicle into the sky.

With four of its five engines operating, the rocket’s guidance, navigation, and control system corrected course and tried to compensate for the thrust shortfall. But the vehicle climbed slower than designed. 

After the rocket reached supersonic speed, a range safety officer on the ground issued a flight termination command about two-and-a-half minutes into the flight.

Astra engineers traced the problem to a propellant leak in the quick disconnect interface between the rocket and the launch pad.

The LV0007 mission was built on lessons learned from Astra’s previous orbital launch attempts.

“We’re out of the test flight phase,” Kemp said Monday. “We’ll be resuming with commercial payloads that will be operating for our customers in low Earth orbit. That’s not to say that there won’t be more test flights in the future. We have a new Rocket 4.0. We’ll be flying a few test flights of that next year. And that’s really something that we’ll have the opportunity to focus on right now. But the Rocket 3.X series will go into production, and we’ll go into launch operations.”

Kemp said the Rocket 3 series, in its current configuration, can haul a payload of around 110 pounds (50 kilograms) into a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) mid-inclination orbit.

He said Astra has more than 50 launches in its backlog.

“I can only imagine that demand will continue to grow as we’ve seen over the past couple of years,” Kemp said. “So I think Astra really is in a position to deliver a payload to precise orbit on a precise schedule. And this precision has a lot of value to our customers, their ability to fly something when they need it flown to exactly the orbit, and have it there in 10 minutes. That’s a pretty powerful, unique capability that really just hasn’t been available at scale in this in this industry before.”

Kemp said Astra will expand to other launch sites. All of the company’s orbital launch attempts so far have lifted off from Alaska.

Astra’s next rocket, LV0008, is “well on its way to being integrated,” Lyon said Monday. Officials said details about the LV0008 launch would be announced soon.

Scott Higginbotham, head of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative at Kennedy Space Center, said Friday that the space agency is the sole customer for the next Astra launch. The mission is part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services, or VCLS, program, which awarded Astra a $3.9 million contract last year for a commercial CubeSat launch.

Astra’s first launch for NASA could happen before the end of the year, according to Higginbotham.

NASA and Astra officials declined to identify the launch site for the VCLS demonstration mission, but multiple sources said the mission is currently slated to fly from pad 46, a commercial launch complex operated by Space Florida at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Astra transports its launch vehicles and ground infrastructure from the company’s headquarters in shipping containers, requiring no permanent infrastructure at the launch site. During launch campaigns in Alaska, Astra teams set up the launch pad and rocket in less than a week.

The results from Saturday’s launch suggest no changes are needed on Astra’s next rocket, Kemp said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Source: Space


Webb reaches orbital destination a million miles from Earth



Artist’s illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope slipped into orbit around a point in space nearly a million miles from Earth Monday where it can capture light from the first stars and galaxies to form in the aftermath of the Big Bang.

As planned, the European Ariane 5 rocket that launched Webb on Christmas Day put the telescope on a trajectory that required only a slight push to reach the intended orbit around Lagrange Point 2, one of five where the pull of sun and Earth interact to form stable or nearly stable gravitational zones.

The push came in the form of a 4-minute 57-second thruster firing at 2 p.m. EST — 30 days after launch at a distance of 907,530 miles from Earth — that increased Webb’s velocity by a mere 3.6 mph, just enough to ease it into a six-month orbit around L2.

“Webb, welcome home!” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a blog post. “Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work ensuring Webb’s safe arrival at L2 today. We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!”

Spacecraft at or near L2 orbit the sun in lockstep with Earth and can remain on station with a minimum amount of rocket fuel, allowing a longer operational lifetime than might otherwise be possible.

An orbit around L2 also will allow Webb to observe the universe while keeping its tennis court-size sunshade broadside to Earth’s star and the telescope’s optics and instruments on the cold side.

As of Monday, Webb’s mirror had cooled down to minus 347 Fahrenheit, well on the way toward a goal of nearly 390 degrees below zero. That’s what is required for Webb to register the exceedingly faint infrared light from the first stars and galaxies.

This infographic illustrates Webb’s journey to L2. Credit: ESA

For the rest of its operational life, Webb will circle L2 at distances between 155,000 and 517,000 miles, taking six months to complete one orbit. Because the orbit around L2 is not perfectly stable, small thruster firings will be carried out every three weeks or so to maintain the telescope’s trajectory.

“Congrats to the team!” tweeted NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen. “@NASAWebb is now in its new stable home in space & one step closer to helping us #UnfoldTheUniverse.”

Before launch, engineers said Webb likely would have enough propellant to operate for five to 10 years. But thanks to the precision of its Ariane 5 launch and two near-perfect trajectory correction burns carried out later, it now appears Webb could remain operational for many years beyond that.

In any case, with the L2 orbit insertion burn behind then, scientists and engineers will focus on aligning Webb’s secondary mirror and the 18 hexagonal segments making up its 21.3-foot-wide primary mirror to achieve the required razor-sharp focus.

Each mirror segment is equipped with seven actuators, six of which can make microscopic changes in a segment’s orientation and one that can push or pull as required to slightly change a mirror’s shape.

As it now stands, the 18 unaligned segments would produce 18 out-of-focus images of the same star. But over the next few months, the positions of each segment will be adjusted in tiny increments, one at a time, to move reflected starlight to the center of the telescope’s optical axis.

Once all 18 light beams are precisely merged, or “stacked,” Webb will effectively be in focus, clearing the way for instrument calibration. The first science images from the fully commissioned telescope are expected this summer.

Source: Space

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Watch live: Cargo Dragon capsule ready to depart space station



SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon spacecraft, closing out a month-long mission, is scheduled to undock from the International Space Station Sunday after a two-delay in its departure to wait for better weather in the capsule’s recovery zone off the coast of Florida.

The gumdrop-shaped cargo freighter will undock from the station’s Harmony module at 10:40 a.m. EDT (1540 GMT) Sunday. A series of departure maneuvers using the ship’s Draco thrusters will guide Dragon away from the complex, setting up for a deorbit burn at 3:18 p.m. EDT (2018 GMT) Monday to allow the spacecraft to drop out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere.

Splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, is scheduled for around 4:05 p.m. EDT (2105 GMT) Monday. Four main parachutes will slow the capsule before reaching the ocean, where a SpaceX recovery vessel will be in position to raise the Dragon spacecraft from the sea.

Time-sensitive cargo, such as biological research samples, will be flown back to Kennedy Space Center by helicopter, where NASA researchers will receive and catalog the materials for analysis and distribution to scientists around the world.

The undocking and splashdown will complete SpaceX’s 24th resupply mission to the space station since 2012 under the umbrella of two multibillion-dollar commercial contracts with NASA.

The Dragon spacecraft is packed with more than 4,900 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of cargo, including a spacesuit coming back to Earth for refurbishment after supporting spacewalks outside the space station.

The mission launched Dec. 21 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The Dragon cargo freighter docked with the space station Dec. 22, and astronauts began unpacking science experiments, holiday gifts and food, spare parts and other supplies.

The cargo delivery last month hauled 6,590 pounds (2,989 kilograms) of supplies and experiments, including packaging, to the space station’s seven-person crew.

The Dragon cargo ship delivered four experimental CubeSats to the station from teams at Kennedy Space Center, Aerospace Corp., Utah State University, and Georgia Tech. The CubeSats will be robotically deployed outside the complex later this year.

The scientific experiments launched on the SpaceX cargo freighter included an investigation from Merck Research Labs studying monoclonal antibodies. The research focus of that experiment is on analyzing the structure and behavior of a monoclonal antibody used in a drug aimed at treating cancers.

Another experiment is assessing the loss of immune protection in astronauts flying in space.

Proctor & Gamble and NASA have partnered in another experiment to test the performance of a new fully degradable detergent named Tide Infinity, a product specifically designed for use in space.

Astronauts on the space station currently wear an item of clothing several times, then discard the garment. But crews flying to the moon and Mars won’t have the same supply chain of cargo missions to support them.

NASA says Tide plans to use the new cleaning detergent to “advance sustainable, low-resource-use laundry solutions on Earth.”

Another research investigation will test manufacturing methods for superalloys in space. Alloys, materials made up of a metal and at least one other chemical element, could be produced in microgravity with fewer defects and better mechanical properties, according to NASA.

“These superior materials could improve the performance of turbine engines in industries such as aerospace and power generation on Earth,” NASA said.

With its 32-day stay at the station over, the astronauts on the research outpost replaced the cargo delivered by Dragon with materials tagged for return to Earth.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Source: Space

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Astra fires up rocket for first time at Cape Canaveral



Astra’s small satellite launcher was test-fired at Cape Canaveral’s Complex 46 launch pad Saturday. Credit: Astra / John Kraus

Astra, a company seeking to carve out a segment of the growing small satellite launch market, test-fired its two-stage rocket at Cape Canaveral on Saturday in preparation for an upcoming demonstration flight for NASA.

The engine test-firing, called a static fire test, occurred on launch pad 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station as Astra prepares to deliver four small CubeSat nano-satellites into orbit under contract to NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program.

The rocket’s five Delphin engines, burning kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants, fired for less than 10 seconds at 11:40 a.m. EST (1640 GMT) Saturday on pad 46.

The static fire test sent an exhaust plume away from the rocket that was visible from public viewing locations several miles away. A low rumble was also heard from the beaches south of Cape Canaveral.

Astra confirmed the static fire test in a tweet Sunday afternoon. Chris Kemp, Astra’s founder and CEO, tweeted that the company will announce the target launch date and time for the mission after receiving a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The static fire test was expected to be a prerequisite for Astra receiving an FAA launch license.

Astra’s rocket is small in size compared to other launch vehicles that regularly fly from Cape Canaveral. The launcher, called Rocket 3.3 or LV0008, stands just 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall, more than five times shorter than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and about the same height as the Falcon 9’s payload compartment.

The commercially-developed launch vehicle, in its existing configuration, is designed to carry a payload of around 110 pounds (50 kilograms) into a 310-mile-high (500-kilometer) polar orbit, according to Kemp. Astra’s rocket is sized to offer dedicated rides to orbit for small commercial, military, and research satellites.

Astra launched its first successful mission to low Earth orbit in November from Kodiak Island, Alaska, on a test flight sponsored by the U.S. Space Force, following three previous launch attempts that faltered during the climb into orbit.

Founded in 2016, Astra aims to eventually conduct daily launches with small satellites at relatively low cost, targeting a smallsat launch market cramped with competitors such as Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and Firefly Aerospace, each of which has begun flying small launch vehicles. Numerous other companies are months or years away from debuting their smallsat launchers.

Four CubeSats are set to ride the rocket into orbit on a mission arranged by NASA.

The mission is part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services, or VCLS, program, which awarded Astra a $3.9 million contract last year for a commercial CubeSat launch. Scott Higginbotham, head of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative at Kennedy Space Center, says the agency is the sole customer for the upcoming Astra launch.

The Venture Class Launch Services program is aimed at giving emerging small satellite launch companies some business, while helping NASA officials familiarize themselves with the nascent industry.

NASA previously awarded VCLS demonstration missions to Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, which completed their first launches for the U.S. space agency in 2018 and 2021. The U.S. military has awarded similar demonstration launch contracts to Astra and other companies.

Higginbotham said the VCLS mission gives NASA insight into companies’ management and technical teams, procedures and processes, and their hardware designs.

“That’s going to allow us to be a better consumer going forward if they stay in business, and can offer their services to us later on,” Higginbotham said. “We’ll already have been introduced and have done a deep dive, of sorts, into those companies to understand what makes them tick, and that’s that’s of tremendous value to us.”

The VCLS demo missions are also a stepping stone toward certification of the new smallsat launchers to carry more expensive NASA satellites into orbit. The certification isn’t required for the demo missions themselves.

“NASA has other missions that require a little bit more reliability from the launch vehicle, a little more certainty, and a little more launch vehicle insight,” Higginbotham said.

Student teams work on the INCA CubeSat set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral on Astra’s small satellite launcher. Credit: New Mexico State University

A team of fewer than a dozen technicians and engineers set up Astra’s rocket on pad 46 earlier this month. Astra’s launch control team remained behind at the company’s headquarters in Alameda, California, where managers remotely control the rocket’s countdown.

A fueling test, or wet dress rehearsal, was accomplished earlier in January before Saturday’s static fire.

NASA assigned four nano-missions to the Astra demonstration launch through the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative program.

One of the CubeSats was developed by the University of California, Berkeley. Named QubeSat, the small spacecraft will test a tiny gyroscope, a device used to help determine the orientation of satellites in space.

Another student-developed payload on Astra’s first launch from Florida is the Ionospheric Neutron Content Analyzer, or INCA mission, from New Mexico State University. INCA’s main science instrument is a directional neutron spectrometer from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Data from INCA will “contribute to understanding the radiation environment that satellites encounter, and to the understanding of neutron air showers, which pose a radiation hazard to occupants of high-altitude aircraft such as airliners,” according to the student team that developed the mission.

The BAMA 1 mission, developed at the University of Alabama, will demonstrate a drag sail device designed to help old satellites and space junk drop out of orbit. The drag sail will encounter air molecules from the rarefied atmosphere at the satellite’s altitude, slowing its velocity enough to fall back to Earth.

The final payload is a CubeSat named R5-S1 from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA says the mission’s objectives including demonstrating quick CubeSat development and testing technologies useful for in-space inspection, which could make human spaceflight safer and more efficient.

Another CubeSat mission from UC-Berkeley originally selected by NASA for the Astra demonstration launch wasn’t ready in time for integration with the rocket in December, according to Jasmine Hopkins, a NASA spokesperson at Kennedy Space Center.

The CubeSat Radio Interferometry Experiment, or CURIE, mission, consists of two identical three-unit CubeSats, each the size of a shoebox, with radio antennas to detect emissions from solar activity, such as solar flares and coronal mass eruptions.

NASA will assign the CURIE satellites to another launch, Hopkins said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Source: Space

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