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Alameda-based rocket launch startup Astra finally got the chance to launch its first orbital test mission from its Alaska-based facility on Saturday, after the attempt had been delayed multiple times due to weather and other issues. The 8:19 PM PT lift-off of Astra’s ‘Rocket 3.1’ test vehicle went well – but the flight ended relatively shortly after that, during the first-stage engine burn and long before reaching orbit.
Astra wasn’t expecting to actually reach orbit on this particular flight – it has always said that its goal is to reach orbit within three test flights of Rocket, and prior to this first mission, said that the main goal was to have a good first-stage burn on this one specifically. This wasn’t a nominal first-stage burn, of course, since that’s when the failure occurred, but the company still noted in a blog post that “the rocket performed very well” according to their first reviews of the data.
The mission ended early because of what appears to be a bit of unwanted back-and-forth wobbling in the rocket as it ascended, Astra said, which caused an engine shutdown by the vehicle’s automated safety system. That’s actually also good news, since it means the steps Astra has taken to ensure safe failures are also working as designed. You can see in the video above that the light of the rocket’s engines simply go out during flight, and then some time later there’s a fireball from its impact on the ground.
It’s worth noting that most first flights of entirely new rockets don’t go entirely as planned – including those by SpaceX, whose founder and CEO Elon Musk expressed his encouragement to the Astra team on Twitter. Likewise, Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck also chimed in with support. Not to mention that Astra has been operating under extreme conditions, with just a six-person team on the ground in Alaska to deploy the launch system, which was set up in under a week, due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Astra will definitely be able to get a lot of valuable data out of this launch that it can use to put towards improving the chances of its next try going well. The company notes that it expects to review said data “over the next several weeks” as it proceeds towards the second flight in this series of three attempts. Rocket 3.2, the test article for that mission, is already completed and awaiting that try.
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Rocket launch startup Astra is readying for its first orbital flight test, set to take place either this weekend or next week, weather permitting. The company will launch its ‘Rocket 3.1’ from Kodiak, Alaska – and while these are technically classified as orbital test flights, the company was quick to caution journalists on a press call on Thursday that it doesn’t necessarily believe each the three initial launches it has planned will make it all the way to orbit proper.
“We don’t intend to get a hole-in-one here,” said Kemp. “It’s a par three course. We intend to really accomplish enough to ensure that we’re able to get to [orbital] flight after three flights, and for us, that means a nominal first stage burn, and getting that upper stage to separate successfully. After that, pretty much everything that we learn is additional upside, and will be just delighted if that upper stage lights and we’ll be delighted if the upper stage teaches us something so that so that our next flight can even be more successful.”
Astra’s approach to building and launching rockets differs somewhat from its competitors. The startup only incorporated three years ago, and it’s building its rockets in Alameda, California – not far from Oakland. The Rocket 3.1 is a roughly 40-foot launch vehicle that carries a small payload, roughly equivalent to one of the small sats that make up the large constellations currently being launched for operation in low Earth orbit by a number of companies (for reference, SpaceX launches 60 of these on each of its Starlink missions).
When I spoke to Kemp ahead of their original attempt to win a DARPA launch challenge (since ended with the prize unclaimed), he stressed that they’re looking to build in volume at low cost, with the expectation of a higher tolerable margin for failure than other new space launch companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab.
“Rather than trying to spend many years doing it first time, we’re iterating towards orbit,” Kemp said during Thursday’s conference about their debut attempt next week.
This is a do-over after the original planned attempt which suffered an anomaly that led in a total loss of the vehicle. That was a ‘Rocket 3.0’ model, and the company has upgraded the design and worked out a number of issues, including the one that led to that failure, with the ensuing time. The gap between now and that attempt at the end of March includes delays resulting from COVID-19, though Astra was eventually declared one of very few companies still allowed to maintain a staffed office since it’s considered important to national security.
These three initial test flights won’t carry any payload, in part because Astra fully expects to lose at least the first vehicle. But Astra’s model actually allows for some operational failures in exchange for economics that allow much less expensive individual launch costs than are currently possible with either SpaceX or Rocket Lab’s rideshare missions as options for small satellite operators.
The first Astra test launch is currently targeting sometime between a window that spans August 2 to August 7, between the hours of 7 PM and 9 PM PDT (6 and 8 PM local time in Kodiak) . So far, weather isn’t looking great for Sunda, but the company notes the weather shifts quickly and plans to keep a close watch and adapt accordingly.
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Another small rocket launcher is readying to demonstrate their ability to launch a vehicle to space, after a few setbacks exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 situation. Astra has just completed a second static test fire of its Rocket 3.1 orbital launch vehicle, and that means it’s now ready for a trip to Alaska where it’ll hopefully make its first trip to orbit from a spaceport in Kodiak.
Astra originally started out as a company with the specific goal of answering the DARPA launch challenge, which asked companies to create a launch vehicle that could tech orbit within a few weeks of each other (originally from separate launch sites, but then later only from separate pads at the same spaceport). The challenge expired without Astra claiming the price, after the 3.0 version of their Rocket failed to reach orbit.
The company has developed, tested and flown three successive generations of Rocket, mostly without much in the way of public fanfare or information sharing. The startup builds its small rockets, which measure roughly 40-feet tall, in Alameda, California at their own factory. In an interview with TechCrunch ahead of their DARPA challenge attempt, Astra CEO and founder Chris Kemp explained that their approach is focused on rapid, at-scale manufacturing and potential failure margins that might be higher than the existing launch companies tolerate.
A kind of mass-market delivery system approach definitely has advantages, and Astra has focused on a launch system that’s much more portable than others for deployment almost anywhere in the world. The company is also focused on small payloads, which it can deliver responsively, so a loss of such a spacecraft wouldn’t be nearly as expensive as, say, a rocket failing and losing a large geosynchronous GPS satellite.
Rocket 3.1 sounds like a relatively minor iteration on Rocket 3.0, vs the large full point updates of prior generations. Astra says it’s currently headed to Kodiak, and that the company is now working to finalize a launch window, with a date to be confirmed for that next big test early next week.
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There’s a new company that wants to get into the commercial space tourism business – with a unique spin that involves non-traditional launch vehicles. Space Perspective, a new startup founded by Jane Poynter and Taber McCallum, intends to fly a pressurized capsule to the upper edge of Earth’s atmosphere using a high-altitude balloon, which can hold up to high passengers for a six-hour trip at an anticipated price of around $125,000 per person.
The, according to the company, is to use its so-called ‘Spaceship Neptune’ capsules to host both tourists and research payloads, with a cruising height of around 100,000 feet. It’s actually technically not space, but the company promises fantastic views that will include sights like the actual curvature of the Earth. The six-hour trip will include a two-hour ascent, a two-hour flight at the top of the atmosphere, and a two-hour descent back to Earth, according to Space Perspective. The company intends to launch its balloons and capsule from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and when it returns to Earth, it’ll splash down in the Atlantic Ocean where a ship will retrieve the passengers, and the capsule. The FAA will regulate all of Space Perspective’s human flights, and it’s working with the U.S. regulatory agency in advance of its planned crewed missions, which are likely still a few years away at least.
If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because Space Perspective’s founders created a company with some very similar goals earlier in their careers: Poynter and McCallum previously co-founded World View, a stratospheric balloon company whose primary mission is to fly payloads including communications and Earth observation hardware, but which also had as one of its stated goals a mission to fly people using balloon-lofted capsules.
World View still operates, though Poynter was replaced as its CEO by Ryan Hartman in February of last year. World View’s primary HQ is in Arizona, and it operates a manufacturing and launch facility there from which it regularly flies its balloons as it continues to develop and deploy its technology.
Space Perspective is a completely separate company, a company respresntaive tells me. The company plans to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as mentioned,d and will also launch in future from Floriday’s Cecil Spaceport, and private launch sites in Alaska, Hawaii, and internationally, the company says.
The startup plans to begin test launching its Neptune capsule as early as next year, though without any people on board, Instead, it’ll carry experimental payloads, which is again a secondary goal of the technology that Space Perspective intends to put in market.
This is an interesting entrance in the ‘not-quite-space’ tourism industry, with some differentiators that could make it a compelling alternative to offerings from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, though not on par with what SpaceX intends to do with its private Crew Dragon commercial flights. Poynter and McCallum appear to have started this as a separate venture from World View in order to allow that company to focus on its more practical industry and commercial payload missions, allowing Space Perspective to better express their specific goal of human high-altitude transportation.
Satellite telecommunications startup Astranis has achieved a key technical milestone with its MicroGEO product, a small geosynchronous communications satellite that it will use to launch its first commercial service starting next summer for customers in Alaska. This is a big milestone for Astranis because the MicroGEO satellite test article that passed this round of thermal-vacuum qualification testing will serve as the basis for a whole planned line of first products, designed to affordably provide low-cost broadband to specific geographic markets using individual spacecraft, region-by-region.
Having already successfully met its technical requirements in terms of radiation, which is particularly powerful in the target orbital band where the Astranis MicroGEO will operate in a fixed position above the Earth, this means that the startup’s tech has passed the last major technical milestone on its path to launch and operation. I spoke to Astranis CEO and founder John Gedmark about the achievement, and he said that while the MicroGEO qualification test article will still undergo a range of remaining tests ahead of its launch on a SpaceX rocket next year ahead of its planned Summer 2021 operational date, this is a big achievement that represents years of work from the team.
“It was a huge amount of work for the team, and I’m sure as you can imagine, these things do not do not come easy,” Gedmark said. “People maybe don’t understand just how extreme the temperatures are that a satellite has to operate within: We were doing testing all the way from 150 degrees Fahrenheit to -180 degree Fahrenheit. Just imagine that temperature swing on a big box of electronics.”
That is incredibly impressive, given that while they’ve improved significantly over the years, even modern consumer electronics can have challenges with much less extreme temperature swings. And qualification testing for equipment designed to work in space is actually done to a standard of both 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter and colder than expected orbital temperatures, just to provide the equipment with a safe operational buffer. Temperatures can vary so wildly because the orbital environment lacks the insulating layer of the atmosphere, meaning it gets very cold when the sun is on the far side of the Earth, and extremely hot when the sun is shining directly on the spacecraft.
The Astranis MicroGEO satellites will operate in geostationary orbit (LEO), which means they’ll sit in a high orbit (higher than what’s known as ‘low Earth orbit’ or LEO, which you may have heard of because that’s where SpaceX’s Starlink satellites work). The GEO band is where existing satellite-based communication infrastructure operates today – but these consist of very large, mostly aging and expensive satellites that provide the backbone of networks including those used for in-flight wifi and on cruise ships.
Astranis is outfitting its GEO satellites with much more modern telecommunications equipment, and making its spacecraft significantly smaller, too. The company is betting that it can deploy smaller GEO satellites much more affordably, in order to serve very specific geographies. Its first satellite will serve Alaska, as mentioned, through a partnership with existing satellite TV and internet provider Pacific Dataport. This is expected to triple the available bandwidth to the state, while keeping costs to customers affordable. After that, the goal is to continue to build and launch similar satellites to serve individual small-to-medim sized countries, states and other regions.
This model differs significantly from what SpaceX and others working on LEO communications constellations are doing. Gedmark outlined the costs and benefits of both, and why he believes what Astranis is doing is likely the better fit in terms of business model and efficiencies for a small, young company to pursue.
“We’re huge fans of what some of these other companies are trying to do with LEO constellations – it’s just very different approach,” he said “We have the ability to put up one satellite at a time and focus bandwidth right where it’s needed, and do that quickly. The smaller constellations, they are very much an all-or-nothing proposition – the entire constellation has to be in place to begin service. And then they have some other challenges ahead of them as well, like ground antennas, unique tracking.”
Gedmark notes that you need to deploy many gateway dishes all around the world in order for LEO constellations to be effective, which caries its own costs and risks. Astranis, however, is compatible with existing infrastructure already used in satellite-based internet and communications, making it much easier to get serving customers. Plus, since it can launch satellites individually to serve specific regions, it can add revenue in stages over time, whereas LEO networks will need an immense up-front capital investment before any money actually starts coming in from commercial customers.
“They certainly can be successful,” he said. “I just think I think it’s gonna take them some time and we’re optimized for speed. Whether it be a U.S. state like Alaska, or a small- or medium-sized country we can offer them some extra bandwidth they can use as soon as possible and, and get it to them at the right price.”
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