Saturday, December 19, 2020

Rocket Startup Astra's Rocket 3.2 Reaches Space but not Orbit

We've been trying to keep an eye on startup Astra in the San Francisco Bay area for a while, and note that this week their Rocket 3.2 launched from Kodiak in Alaska and easily made it into space, but its final velocity was just a little short of the velocity required to attain orbit. From the company's blog entry on the mission:
Rocket 3.2 lifted off from the Alaskan coast on December 15th at 12:55 pm PT followed by more than two minutes of a successful first stage flight. A few seconds later, we completed a nominal stage separation and ignition of the upper stage, and blasted past the Kármán line, the border between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. Almost seven minutes later, traveling over 16,000 miles per hour (Mach 21), Astra’s upper stage engine shut down nominally after depleting all of its fuel. Rocket 3.2 precisely achieved its target altitude of 380 kilometers at 7.2 km/sec… just short of orbital velocity of 7.68 km/sec.
This is the first time Astra has made it into space, even if it couldn't achieve orbit.  Their previous attempt, Rocket 3.1 failed on ascent last September.  In a video of the launch you can see the first stage fail after about 30 seconds, and then the vehicle starts tumbling.  It falls back to the ground and explodes on impact.  In contrast, reviewing this weeks' flight data they say that small tweaks to the fuel/oxidizer ratio are all it will take to achieve orbital velocity. 

Where Astra seems to fit into the launch ecosystem is the very bottom end.  Their booster is less powerful than the Rocket Lab Electron, which currently seems to be among the leaders in the small launch business, if not the actual leader.  The Rocket 3.2 is 11-1/2 meters tall, not even 38'.  The electron is 18 m or 59 feet tall.  A Falcon 9 is a much larger rocket at 229.6 feet tall. 

Liftoff from LP-3B in Alaska, from this video.

Still, we have to tip the hat to Astra.  As Elon Musk said, "orbit is hard."  Many try, nobody seems to make it without some pain.  According to that blog post, linked above, they have as many as 100 satellites contracted to be delivered to orbit and plan to start doing that soon. 


  1. We used to use those framed, cylindrical tanks to store RP1 in. I hope these have somethings else in them, considering their proximity to the pad....

  2. Wow! That's still higher than Blue Origins has ever reached!

    And, yes, I will continue to dog the dog-snot out of BO until they actually suborbit a real payload or orbit a test payload. Needless to say, I'm not holding my breathe.

    These are exciting times to be a space-watcher.

    Thanks for the updates.

    1. These are exciting times to be a space-watcher.

      It really feels quite different than the Space Shuttle era. It's like the world is fundamentally different. There are private rocket companies springing up all over the world and the launch industry is busier than ever before. Only about 30 to 40 years later than we thought.

    2. The Shuttle program and the quest to LEO just sucked all the fun out of space.

      And, yes, 40-50 years later than we thought. There was supposed to be a long-term manned space station by 76. A new heavy lift based on Saturn by... 76. A deep space exploration capsule based on Apollo but even larger than Orion by... 76. And even a 'space bus' to launch to LEO based on Gemini, by... 76 or so. Nuclear propulsion systems and deep space manned probes by 80. Along with a permanent base on the Moon processing materials for use in space. And easy orbital manufacturing of truss systems and habitat modules made from materials processed from Moon material or from used space equipment, from boosters to capsules to satellites.

      Some of this was covered by a NOVA program back in 78...

      And now, just now we're at where we were just post-Apollo to the Moon. Which was dead (construction-wise) by 1970...

      Le Sigh...

  3. I'm sure that their insurance rates are suffering.

    It would be interesting to know what glitched and why. Do you think that they know?

    1. Their statement was, Our data shows that all of the rocket’s hardware and software performed exceptionally well, and that only a small adjustment to the mixture ratio of fuel and oxidizer stands between us and our first customer payload delivery in a few months. Which doesn't even isolate it to one stage or the other.

      I assume there's no insurance involved, being a test flight with no payload so no paying customer involved.

  4. It reminds me of the US's first astronaut - Alan Shepard, not John Glenn. Alan Shepard made it into "space" but John Glenn made it to orbit. I recall listening to both of those on the Armed Forces Radio Network (Europe).