Astra’s Rocket 3.3 succeeds in reaching orbit on the fourth time

On November 20, Astra Space’s Rocket 3.3 successfully launched into orbit, making it the small launch vehicle startup’s fourth orbital launch attempt. The Rocket 3.3 vehicle, having the serial number LV0007, launched from Kodiak Island’s Pacific Spaceport Complex at 1:16 a.m. Eastern. After over two hours of delays, Astra canceled a launch attempt the day before.

The flight proceeded according to schedule, with the very first stage firing for around three minutes. After that, the upper stage separated and ran its solitary engine for almost five and a half 5.5 minutes, injecting the stage into the nearly 500-kilometer-high orbit. Through a deal arranged by the United States Space Force via the Defense Innovation Unit, the mission carried a payload for Space Test Program dubbed STP-27AD2. The payload, which was designed to monitor environmental conditions on the spacecraft while in flight, did not split from the higher stage on purpose.

This was Astra’s fourth attempt to enter orbit. The previous attempt, on August 28, was thwarted when one of the five first-stage engines failed to fire within one second of the liftoff. The incident was attributed to a fast-disconnect system for the propellant lines which leaked fuel, which exploded in an enclosed area between the rocket and the launch platform, destroying the connection to the electronics regulating the engine’s fuel pump.

Benjamin Lyon, Astra’s executive vice president as well as chief engineer, detailed the investigation in a blog post saying, “The issue we uncovered was something we hadn’t seen before.” Owing to a fast-disconnect device which was intended to seal shut when pipes feeding liquid oxygen and RP-1 fuel into the rocket disengaged during liftoff, propellants leaked into an enclosed compartment between both the rocket as well as its launch platform.

Last year, two other rocket attempts failed to enter orbit. The second of these, launched in December 2020, came close to reaching orbit. The upper stage finished fuel seconds before its scheduled shutdown, causing it to fall short of orbital velocity by around 0.5 kilometers per second. On the inaugural webcast, Chris Kemp, who works as the co-founder and chief executive of Astra, said, “The team has been working hard on this for very many years, witnessing failure after failure, iteration after iteration, lead to success.”

In a November 11 earnings report, Astra executives said they hoped to deploy the very next vehicle, LV0008, before the close of the year, depending on the outcome of this launch. At the time of the call, that vehicle was nearing completion, with LV0009 and LV0010 in the works.

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