Astra fails, sends NASA's Tropics weather satellites back to Earth

Orbital success counter stuck at 2 as upper stage of rocket shuts down early and CubeSats lost

The first of NASA's TROPICS constellation launches came to an unscheduled end over the weekend as the Astra launch vehicle it was riding failed to deliver the cubesats to orbit.

It was all going so well. The two cubesats lifted off atop an Astra Rocket 3 from Space Launch Complex 46 at approximately 1343 EDT on June 12, 2022.

The initial flight seemed go swimmingly, but things went wrong after the first stage had completed. Viewers of video streaming live from the rocket saw what appeared to be the start of some tumbling before the feed was abruptly cut off. NASA's California-based commercial rocket-making partner Astra confirmed that the upper stage had shut down early, dooming the payload to a considerably earlier than planned rendezvous with Earth.

TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats) requires six satellites to do its stuff and this was the first of three planned launches. The constellation of CubeSats, in three low-Earth orbital planes, is meant to to measure environmental and inner-core conditions for tropical cyclones with unprecedented detail and at a relatively low cost.

While the program under which the launch was procured is designed to tolerate higher risks in return for increasing launch opportunities and supporting commercial space, a dunking in the ocean was not part of the plans.

The failure will also only add to the woes of Astra, a company with two successful orbital missions under its belt. Its launch in March 2022 went well, but the previous one, in February, failed after an issue with the stage separation mechanism.

Astra remained tightlipped regarding the cause of the failure until an investigation has been completed.

NASA, however, put a brave face on things. Astra is, after all, expected to launch the rest of the TOPICS constellation on its next two vehicles. Once whatever caused the weekend's issues has been resolved, of course.

Astra was quick to bounce back following the anomaly earlier this year. With launch contracts in the bag, one can but hope it will be able to do the same again.

The incident is, however, yet another boost for the cliché: "Space is hard." ®

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