Astra suffers failure on ELaNa 41 mission

by Adrian Beil

Astra has launched the ELaNa 41 mission for NASA, the company’s first flight from Space Launch Complex 46 (SLC-46) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The LV0008 launch vehicle, the third Rocket 3.3 vehicle, lifted off at 3:00 PM EST (20:00 UTC). An anomaly occurred near the time of stage separation which prevented the payload from being successfully deployed.

The mission was to be the first for Astra to deploy satellites into orbit, lifting four CubeSats into a 500-kilometer altitude, 41-degree inclination Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The CubeSats were built by three different universities and the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This was the third launch of Rocket 3.3 with the last mission, STP-27AD2, successfully reaching orbit for the first time.

ELaNa stands for Educational Launch of Nanosatellites and is an initiative created by NASA to help students get practice in space-related fields. As part of the program, the students design, assemble, and test payloads together with NASA. The mission is also referred to as Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) Demo 2, part of NASA’s program to utilize dedicated small launch vehicles.

The first payload is the Ionospheric Neutron Content Analyzer (INCA), built by New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. Its focus was to be the study of the neutron spectrum in LEO to improve space weather predictions and models and help to predict dangerous events for spacecraft. It featured a newly developed spectrometer, which was designed by NASA´s Goddard Space Flight Center, in cooperation with the University of New Hampshire. It masses 3.8 kilograms.

Another payload is the BAMA-1 technology demonstrator, developed by the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. The goal of BAMA-1 was to demonstrate a rapid deorbit capability of a satellite. For this, it was to deploy a drag sail that would increase the atmospheric drag of the payload, and thus, help the satellite to de-orbit much quicker.

This technology could be used on operational satellites in the future as well, so they could deorbit faster at the end of their lifetime and reduce the amount of space debris that could endanger satellites, space stations, and other space assets. A second mission, called BAMA-2, might be planned at a later date.

The third payload onboard was QubeSat of the University of California, Berkeley. QubeSat was another technology demonstrator that plans to observe the effects of space on a quantum gyroscope. This could help a spacecraft in the future to accurately determine its attitude.

At last, the R5-S1 payload, developed by the Johnson Space Center, flew on this mission. Its goal was to demonstrate the practical use of commercial off-the-shelf components for in-space inspection. Its second goal was to demonstrate the ability to build cost-effective CubeSats with cheap parts.

The launch vehicle for the ELaNa 41 mission was LV0008, the third vehicle of Astra’s version 3.3 rocket. LV0008 was preceded by multiple test flights, including the Rocket 3.1 vehicle which flew in September 2020 from Kodiak, Alaska. After a guidance issue shortly after liftoff, that flight was terminated for range safety.

The next launch was Rocket 3.2. While it failed to successfully reach orbit in its test flight in December 2020, it was the first Astra rocket to reach space.

The first flight of Rocket 3.3, which is also the version to be used for this flight, was designated LV0006 and conducted in August 2021. After an engine failure right at liftoff, the vehicle could not provide the required thrust for the planned flight profile and thus was terminated about 150 seconds into flight.

On its second flight, Rocket 3.3 successfully reached orbit on November 19, 2021. The LV0007 vehicle managed to carry a test payload for the United States Space Force into the desired orbit. The payload was intentionally not released on that flight.

LV0008 stands 13.1 meters high with a diameter of 1.32 meters and with two stages powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen. The first stage is powered by five Delphin engines that will produce around 145 kN of thrust at liftoff. Astra uses electric pumps to power the engines. The second stage uses a single pressure-fed Aether engine, which can produce a bit more than 3 kN of thrust.

The LV0008 vehicle successfully completed a static fire test on January 22, before payload integration and other final launch preparations.

The pad used for this launch is Space Launch Complex 46 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.  This site has been previously used for rockets such as Lockheed Martin’s Athena rocket family and the Minotaur IV rocket operated by Northrop Grumman. Most recently, in July 2019, SLC-46 hosted the Orion Ascent Abort-2 mission.

After counting down through the propellant loading sequence, the rocket ignited its first stage engines three seconds before lifting off. At T+ six seconds, the rocket started the pitch-over maneuver. This placed the vehicle on a trajectory to target a 41-degree inclination orbit and began gaining the horizontal velocity needed to achieve orbit.

After one minute and 10 seconds after liftoff, the rocket experienced Max-Q. This is where the rocket endured the maximum amount of aerodynamic stress on the vehicle. It is one of the most critical phases of a rocket launch.

Astra LV0008 vertical at SLC-46 before launch. (Credit: Astra/John Kraus)

Later, at two minutes and 50 seconds, the propellants in the first stage depleted. This is called Main Engine Cut-Off (MECO), as the five engines of the first stage are shut down. The stage was to be dropped 10 seconds later, but around this time, an anomaly occurred with the vehicle.

Five seconds after MECO, the fairing was to be separated from the rocket. With the aerodynamic pressure of Earth’s atmosphere almost gone at this point, the payload does not need protection anymore, so the fairing is dropped to save weight for the last stage of this flight and also to release the upper stage.

At three minutes and five seconds after liftoff, the upper stage ignited and from there was to burn for approximately five minutes and 25 seconds. On a nominal flight, after Second Engine Cut-Off (SECO) at about T+ eight minutes and 30 seconds, the upper stage and the four CubeSats would have been in orbit. About ten seconds later, the deployment sequence would have begun. All four payloads were to be deployed over approximately 20 seconds.

(Lead photo: LV0008 vertical at SLC-46 before launch. Credit: Astra/John Kraus)

NASASpaceflight and Astra partnered to broadcast the ELaNa 41 mission. As part of the partnership, Astra is covering some expenses associated with producing the broadcast.

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