Astra, a California-based space launch company, has joined the ranks of private space companies sending their vehicles into orbit.
Last month, the company successfully sent its Launch Vehicle 0007 (LV0007) into space, marking a new direction for the growing firm.
Success At Last for Astra
Astra is just one of the many space companies making waves in the private aerospace business - which remains heavily dominated by a select number of firms.
In late November, the company's LV0007 vehicle took off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak Island, Alaska, carrying a payload for the United States military. About nine minutes after the launch, the vehicle successfully reached Earth's orbit - around 500 kilometers above sea level.
Everything went as planned. The vehicle's first stage fired for up to three minutes, the upper stage successfully separated, and the engine took over for almost six minutes, taking LV0007 into orbit and making history for Astra.
In its launch, LV0007 carried STP-27AD - a payload for the Space Test Program built to measure the environmental conditions of the vehicle while in transit. Obtained through a contract between Astra and the United States Space Force through the Defense Innovation Unit, the payload did its job without a hitch.
A Long Line of Misfires
This flight was undoubtedly an important one for Astra.
The company has run through three failed flights, the first in March 2020 as part of a competition put together by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). At the time, the government agency was looking for a rocket company to help send satellites to space.
Astra came incredibly close to launching its rocket but was forced to stop the mission due to bad data readings. As a result, Astra (and the other companies vying for DARPA's $12 million prize) failed the competition.
In September 2020, Astra attempted another flight, this time launching its Rocket 3.1 from Alaska's Pacific Spaceport Complex. But shortly after the rocket lifted off, its guidance system failed. Astra explained that the guidance system had introduced some oscillation while in mid-air, causing the rocket to drift from the initial trajectory.
An onlooker caught the launch on video, posting it on social media. As the footage shows, the rocket's engine suddenly went off mid-air, the rocket itself hitting the ground a few moments later.
Interestingly, it looked like Astra hadn't planned for the mission to be an overwhelming success. The company explained that its objective was not to reach orbit, but to have a nominal first stage burn. Astra claimed that preliminary data showed a solid performance. In a blog post, Astra explained:
"We didn't meet all of our objectives, but we did gain valuable experience, plus even more valuable flight data. This launch sets us well on our way to reaching orbit within two additional flights, so we're happy with the result."
Three months after Rocket 3.1, Astra tried again with Rocket 3.2.
This time, the vehicle came agonizingly close to reaching orbit. Rocket 3.2 climbed into space, performing all fuel burns. But after reaching an altitude of 390 kilometers, the rocket was unable to climb any further, maxing out at 7.2 kilometers per second, just a little shy of the 7.68-kilometer-per-second speed required to reach orbit.
In a press call, company chief executive Chris Kemp pointed out that the problems with Rocket 3.2 were easy to fix. Engineers simply needed to adjust the propellant ratio. It appears Kemp was right, the latest launch being a groundbreaking success.
Though Astra's LV0006 failed to launch in August of this year, its most recent success puts it in hallowed territory. The company now joins SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Rocket Lab as the few American private space companies to send vehicles into orbit.
Astra is on the smaller end compared to the other companies mentioned, but with its recent success, there's little doubt that it will start contract bidding and looking to scale up capacity in the new year.