Orbital Launch Attempt | Astra Rocket 3.1

Launch Window
(Subject to change)

NET September 12, 03:00 – 05:30 UTC
NET September 11, 19:00 – 21:30 PT

Mission Name
This mission is only known as “Orbital Launch Attempt”
Launch Provider
(What rocket company is launching it?)
Astra
Customer
(Who’s paying for this?)
There is no customer for this launch since it is a test launch
Rocket
Rocket 3.1
Launch Location
Launch Pad 3B, Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska
Payload mass
Up to 25 kg (55 lb)
Where are the satellites going?

To a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) of 340 km,
at an inclination of 86.3°

Will they be attempting to recover the first stage?
No, this is not a capability Astra has
Where will the first stage land?
The first stage will crash into the Pacific Ocean
Will they be attempting to recover the fairings?
No, this is not a capability Astra has
Are these fairings new?
Yes
How’s the weather looking?
Weather is currently favorable for the launch window on August 7
This will be the:
  • 1st test launch of Astra’s Rocket 3.1
Where to watch
Unfortunately Astra won’t have a live webcast for this launch, but they will post live updates on their Twitter.
 

What does all this mean?

Astra will launch its orbital-class rocket “Rocket 3.1” on September 12 between 01:00 UTC and 03:30 UTC from Launch Pad B, Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska.

The Mission

The “Orbital Launch Attempt”, as Astra is naming this mission, will mark their first orbital test flight after a scrub on March 2 with only 53 seconds remaining on the launch countdown. Astra established a launch window for Rocket 3.1 starting on September 11 between 01:00 UTC and 03:30 UTC. This launch window will remain open at the same time every day for a couple of days. Rocket 3.1 will lift off from Launch Pad B, Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska.

Since this is a test launch, there will be no additional payload other then the sensors and instruments required for data gathering. This launch will be considered successful after a nominal first stage burn and will help Astra to further develop their launch vehicle. Everything after main engine cut off (MECO) could be described as an additional goody to their cause.

The launch on August 3 will mark Astra’s first launch in their three-launch campaign in order to achieve orbit within three flights.

Mission Timeline

T-1h15minStart of final pre-launch procedure
T-45minPropellant load begins
T-20minPropellant load complete
T-15minEntering terminal count
T-/+0sLiftoff
T+5sRoll program initiated
T+25sVehicle clears range
T+1minMaximum aerodynamic pressure (Max Q)
T+2min 3sBegin to throttle down the engines
T+2min 18sMain engine cut off (MECO)
T+2min 20sFairing separation
T+2min 27sStage separation
T+2min 32sSecond stage engine ignition
T+8min 48sSecond engine cut off (SECO)
T+8min 51sPayload deployment signal
Rocket 3.1 at launch pad 3B. (Credit: John Kraus)
Rocket 3.1 at launch pad 3B. (Credit: John Kraus)

The Rocket 3.1 Launch Vehicle

Rocket 3.1 is Astra’s third version of their small-sat launch vehicle and the first version of their orbital rocket. With a height of 11.6 m (38 ft), a diameter of 1.32 m (4.3 ft) and a payload capacity of 25 kg to a 500 km SSO, it is in the same class of small-sat launch vehicles as Rocket Lab’s Electron.

Rocket 3.1 and the team before it got shipped off to the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska. (Credit: Astra)

This two-stage rocket is powered by RP-1 and LOX. The first stage will make use of five electric-pump-fed Delphin engines that will produce a total thrust of 140 kN (31,500 lbf) at liftoff. The second stage is powered by a single pressure fed Aether engine that will produce 3.1 kN (700 lbf) of thrust in a vacuum. Since Astra is a rather secretive company, they have not released any technical information about their engines, such as ISP, TWR, or combustion chamber pressure. The aluminum body and tanks of Rocket 3.1 have a similarity to SpaceX’s Starship prototypes, with its welded stacked rings of stainless steel.

Another unique characteristic is that Astra’s Rocket 3.1 fits into a standard shipping container and can be towed by a truck. To set up the rocket on its mobile launch structure, it only takes a handful of ground support staff and about a week to go through vehicle checks, a wet dress rehearsal and the launch readiness review. Astra’s goal for the future is to bring the time required to set up the rocket down to under 24 hours. Therefore, it can meet the needs of some special customers who require a rapid launch schedule for their payloads.

Bringing Down Cost

Due to their focus on cost-efficient techniques for building rockets and by using proven and inexpensive materials, Astra will try to drive down the cost of accessing space. In the future, they will be offering dedicated launch services at a significantly lower price, compared to any other orbital vehicle in operation today.

ASTRA

Astra, previously known as Ventions LLC, is a launch vehicle provider founded in 2005 and based in Alameda, California. Rocket 3.1, their most current launch vehicle, gets its name from being their third main iteration of their launch vehicle.

Rocket 3.1 will be their first orbital rocket with its first orbital test flight on August 3, 2020. As Ventions LLC, their initial focus was to pioneer a new and innovative fabrication technique to create fine-featured injectors and cooling channels in rocket engines. They developed small impellers with blade heights as small as 0.51 mm (0.02 inches). In September 2016, Ventions LLC became Astra. Astra’s next milestones were their two suborbital test launches of  Rocket 1.0 and Rocket 2.0. They launched on July 20, 2018 and November 29, 2018 respectively.

Employees

Despite Astra being a rather new launch provider, it already employs some major space industry veterans and former SpaceX employees. Such engineers as Chris Thompson, Matt Lehman, Roger Carlson and Bryson Gentile, who were founding members, are part of the propulsion team. They worked on the Dragon capsule and on the Falcon 9, respectively.

Astra’s future goal is to become the FedEx of space deliveries in the small-sat sector by providing an easy to build transportable launch system that is cheap and simple.

DARPA Competition

Early in 2018, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, started a launch contest where contestants could win a grand prize of $10 million USD. Participants had to meet the following criteria:

  • two separate launches
  • different launch sites
  • short notification to first launch
  • only days to two weeks between launches
  • different payloads
  • different orbits

Initially, 18 teams got pre-qualified by DARPA. However, only three became finalists: Virgin Orbit’s VOX Space subsidiary, Vector Space and Astra. While Vector Space ran into financial problems, Virgin Orbit dropped out because they focused on getting their air-launch system ready for commercial operations. Therefore, only Astra remained as the final participant.

After continuous delays because of bad weather, Astra had to scrub their “One of Three ” launch attempt on March 2 at T-53 seconds. A faulty sensor on Rocket 3.0’s first stage caused the scrub. The March 2, 2020 launch date was the last day in the launch window of the DARPA’s Launch Challenge. The scrub meant that Astra lost out on $12 million USD in prize money. In a tweet they published after the scrub, they explained that safety and complete investigation of the problem is more important to them than winning the DARPA launch challenge. By doing so, they want to increase the probability of overall success of their three-launch campaign.

Astra’s Rocket 3.0 on its mobile launch structure during flight preps for the DARPA launch challenge. (Credit: DARPA)

In a post-scrub interview, Chris Kemp stated that Astra needs to get a new FAA licence to launch, since it will no longer be the DARPA launch challenge payload. “We expect the new license approval to take one to two weeks, but no longer than a month.”

Loss of Rocket 3.0

After a wet dress rehearsal as part of a pre-launch test in March, Astra’s Rocket 3.0 suffered from a catastrophic anomaly. This incident lead to the loss of Rocket 3.0. The anomaly was caused by a valve which was stuck open during de-tanking of the rocket. Fortunately, nobody was harmed during this incident, and only Astra’s hardware was damaged. Astra went back to the drawing board and tried to recreate the problem with the valve which has previously been tested thousands of times. After months of finding the root to the problem, Astra implemented three levels of redundancy in order to prevent another anomaly.

8 comments
    1. This mission is only known as “Rocket 3.1 Orbital Launch Attempt” and yes, they are trying to achieve orbit with this test flight.

  1. Hello Mr. Dodd,

    Do you know Astra’s e-mail address and/or telephone number? (Astra’s website has neither–just an e-mail “template” contact page, but I’ve received no reply to multiple queries.) I live in Fairbanks, and some years ago I was the volunteer historian for the Poker Flat Research Range, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ sounding rocket launch site (it opened in March 1969) thirty miles north of town. I would like to contact Astra because there is a particular type of spacecraft that we here in the North Polar region could use (people in the South Polar region–and not just at the Antarctic bases–could also use one or more of them), and Astra’s Rocket 3.1 could loft them inexpensively from the PSCA on Kodiak Island. Now:

    There is a particular type of solar sail spacecraft that we Polar and near-Polar dwellers could use for clear communications relay and meteorological observation—the statite (“static satellite”), a non-orbiting, solar sail-suspended communications, weather, and/or navigation satellite that hovers stationary above a planet’s pole—or moves in a small circle around a planet’s axis above a pole, enabling many statites to be “hung” in the sky (they can also follow normal orbits, yet hover many degrees above or below the orbit’s plane). The late physicist and “hard” science fiction author Dr. Robert L. Forward, who I knew slightly, invented the statite concept (his 1995 book “Indistinguishable From Magic” covers his statite work, including his scientific papers on them), and:

    Due to our high latitude, geosynchronous satellites are always low on the horizon, such that the Earth’s own thermally-generated microwave radio noise, plus line-of-sight signal obstacles such as hills, mountains, trees, and buildings, make them more troublesome to use here; one or more statites, on the other hoof, would always be directly overhead (and stationary–or very nearly so [if they moved around the Earth’s axis], enough that Earth antennas need not be moved to follow their signal beams), giving clear reception and open lines-of-sight over the entire polar region. An OSCAR statite, of CubeSat design and supported by a boom-supported or spin-rigidized solar sail, would be very helpful to ham radio operators (and for relaying emergency radio traffic), and it would hang fixed—or very nearly so, if multiple statites were hung in the sky—above the North Pole (South “Pole-sitter” statites are equally practical, of course). Other statites could provide weather observation, navigational services (normally by radio, but even via visual tracking, in a pinch [because their solar sails would be very bright, even in the daytime sky]), emergency aircraft and personal locator beacon signal pinpointing & relaying, television, radio, and internet services, etc. ALSO:

    Such statites wouldn’t require any thrusters, as their sails—either a “square sail” (a boom-supported, three-axis-stabilized sail, not necessarily square in shape), a spinning disc sail (with movable payload), or a heliogyro sail, could be used—would provide attitude control as well as propulsion, when necessary. By utilizing an “inclination-cranking,” polar or Sun-synchronous (near-polar) orbit, a statite could reach its perch after launch aboard a quite small rocket (such as Astra’s Rocket 3.1 launch vehicle). The statite could hover either directly along the Earth’s axis, or in a small circle around it—like a halo orbit, but in a plane perpendicular to the Earth’s axis—high above the North Polar region. Millions of people, living in both polar regions, would benefit from OSCAR statites, comstats, meteostats, and navstats, and:

    Because statites need no onboard rocket hardware (attitude control thrusters, electric propulsion thrusters, etc.), organizations such as the Arctic Amateur Radio Club–and/or non-aerospace companies, even local ones here–could build them (just as the earlier [and/or smaller] OSCAR satellites, which also had/have no onboard—or attached—rocket hardware, were and are built by non-aerospace professional, amateur radio operators). North Pole statites would hang directly (or very nearly directly) overhead in our sky, providing clear line-of-sight communication, and they would be easy to locate (both visually and by their radio emissions); being fixed (or very nearly so) in the sky, they would also be much easier to “follow” than the rapidly-moving, low-orbiting NOAA Sun-synchronous orbit meteorological satellites (meteostats, unlike such satellites, could also observe their assigned Polar regions–whether northern or southern–continuously (and “working” the statites wouldn’t require the use of tracking antennas with alt-azimuth mountings—fixed antennas would be more than adequate, because the statites’ radio beams would be wide enough to cover them).

    I hope this information will be helpful.

    Sincerely Yours,

    James *Jason* Wentworth

  2. Hello there! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy reading your articles. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same topics? Thanks for your time!

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