The space company Astra failed to deliver two NASA weather satellites into orbit on one of its rockets on Sunday, resulting in the loss of the spacecraft.
The malfunction, which was caused by the premature shutdown of one of the rocket’s engines, marks the company’s second botched attempt to launch NASA satellites this year, following a February mission that ended in failure when the rocket spun out of control.
Astra noted that the first stage of the rocket, which is located on the bottom of the vehicle, operated normally, propelling the vehicle along its planned trajectory for several minutes after its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 1:43 PM Eastern Time.
But the second stage engine switched off about 10 minutes into the flight, resulting in the loss of a pair of satellites that belong to a NASA constellation called the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission, which aims to improve real-time monitoring of tropical storms.
“We had a nominal first stage flight,” the company said in a tweet. “The upper stage shut down early and we did not deliver the payloads to orbit. We have shared our regrets with @NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full data review.”
Astra won a $7.95 million contract from NASA to deliver a total of six TROPICS satellites into orbit over the course of three launches. It’s not known when the company will send the remainder of the constellation, which consists of small spacecraft known as CubeSats, into orbit.
“While we are disappointed in the loss of the two TROPICS CubeSats, the mission is part of NASA’s Earth venture program, which provides opportunities for lower-cost, higher risk missions,” NASA said in a statement on Sunday. “Despite a loss of the first two of six satellites, the TROPICS constellation will still meet its science objectives with the four remaining CubeSats distributed in two orbits. With four satellites, TROPICS will still provide improved time-resolved observations of tropical cyclones compared to traditional observing methods.”
“As a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licensed mission, the FAA and Astra will lead the investigation to understand what happened during the TROPICS-1 launch,” according to the statement. “NASA will lend any expertise needed but would expect to pause the launch effort with Astra while an investigation is being conducted to ensure we move forward when ready.”
Although the destruction of NASA satellites presents a major setback for the company, Astra has successfully launched two other missions from Alaska, starting with a US Space Force project in November 2021, followed by a variety of small satellites in March.