After months of technical and weather delays, Astra launched its first orbital rocket on Friday night from a spaceport in southern Alaska.
The five main engines of the Stubby, small rocket were lit several seconds before liftoff, and then the booster, named Rocket 3.1, began to climb into the deep evening sky. Rocket 3.1 appeared to climb straight and true for about 15 seconds, before it slid back and forth.
Later, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Adam London, would explain that a problem with the rocket’s computerized guidance system introduced a minor roll oscillation. As it happened, the vehicle began to move away from its planned trajectory.
At that point, it appeared that even though the guidance system was able to reduce the roll, the rocket was dangerously close to passing outside its controlled flight zone. To prevent the rocket from potentially falling into the protected area, it was therefore ordered to shut down its engines. They were ignited for approximately 30 seconds, or slightly less than one-quarter of the planned first stage.
“Overall, we are very happy with what we have learned,” London said during a teleconference with reporters on Saturday.
Based on an initial review of the data, Astra officials said they believed the problem was due to a flight software problem, rather than a problem with the rocket’s first-stage hardware. Engineers with a California-based company planned to conduct a “comprehensive” investigation to ensure that they understood the root cause of the failure.
Prior to launch, Astra was quite clear that it did not expect this mission – which did not take any payload to reach orbit. The company’s philosophy is that the best way to develop a rocket quickly and at a low cost is to test its boosters in flight. The company plans to have a third class of three test flights, and its chief executive Chris Kemp said the Friday night launch attempt puts the Astra on the path.
“This rocket is a completely new system, none of it has ever flown before,” Kemp said. “There is almost no part on this rocket that has ever flown. This is a great result.”
Founded in October 2016, Astra has limited its spending to around $ 100 million, in part keeping its head count to over 100 people. Kemp said the company feared failure because the best way to get data about the rocket’s performance is not to perform endless simulations on the ground – missing the roll issue in the company’s guidance and testing of the navigation system – rather in flight. To test hardware.
“For us, what’s expensive is not learning,” he said. “TThey have one thing that is very difficult to test on the ground. “
With additional data, the Astra team will now prepare Rocket 3.2 for flight testing. This booster is already being assembled at the company’s factory in Alameda, California. The first stage for the Rocket 3.2 is similar to its predecessor, but the company has upgraded its second stage to have a better chance of reaching orbit. Kemp said the flight could be “real soon”.
Image listed by John Kruse for Astra