California-based Astra on Sunday launched two NASA satellites the size of a shoebox from Cape Canaveral as part of a small NASA TROPICS mission aimed at improving hurricane forecasts, but the second stage of an inexpensive rocket booster failed before it reached orbit and the payload was lost.
“The upper stage shut down early and we did not deliver the payloads to orbit,” wrote Astra on Twitter. “We have shared our regrets with @NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full data review.”
This was the seventh launch of the small Astra rocket and the company’s fifth failure. Sunday’s launch was the first of three planned by NASA to launch six small CubeSat satellites, two in three orbital planes.
Given the somewhat risky nature of relying on a rocket with a very short track record, the $40 million project requires only four satellites and two successful launches to achieve the mission’s goals.
NASA’s contract provides for the last two flights until the end of July. Whether Astra will be able to meet this schedule, given Sunday’s failure, is unknown.
“Although today’s launch with @Astra did not go as planned, the mission offered a great opportunity for new science and launch capabilities,” wrote the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen on Twitter.
The goal of NASA TROPICS is to monitor the development of tropical storms in near real time, flying over hurricanes and other atmospheric phenomena every 45-50 minutes and transmitting data on temperature, precipitation, water vapor and cloud ice.
This ability to quickly revisit, that is, the time between satellite passages over a particular storm system, is intended to help scientists better understand how large storms develop, as well as help forecasters better predict the path and intensity.