Front Page: Astra Prepares For Next Launch After Identifying Cause Of August Launch Failure

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by Jeff Foust — October 12, 2021
Astra says leaking propellant ignited when its Rocket 3.3 vehicle lifted off Aug. 28, disabling a fuel pump and shutting down one of five first-stage engines less than a second after liftoff. Credit: Astra/NASASpaceFlight.com webcast

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle company Astra has identified the cause of an August launch failure and says it will make its next attempt as soon as late this month.

In an Oct. 12 statement, Astra said the Aug. 28 launch of a Rocket 3.3 vehicle, designated LV0006, failed because propellants leaked from a supply system and ignited, disabling one of the rocket’s five first-stage engines less than one second after liftoff.

“The issue we encountered was something we hadn’t seen before,” Benjamin Lyon, executive vice president and chief engineer of Astra, said in a blog post about the investigation. The quick-disconnect system was designed to close the lines that feed RP-1 fuel and liquid oxygen to the rocket at liftoff. Instead, the propellants leaked into the enclosed space between the rocket’s launch platform and the rocket.

“Those propellants were ignited by the engine exhaust, causing an over-pressure event that severed the connection to the electronics that control the fuel pump, shutting down the engine less than one second after liftoff,” he wrote.

With only four engines operating, the rocket hovered just off the ground, drifting away from the launch tower until it had burned off enough propellant to make it light enough to ascend under its reduced thrust. The mission was terminated shortly after reaching max-Q (or maximum dynamic pressure).

Astra says it’s made several changes to correct the problem on future launches. To reduce the possibility of leakage, Astra modified propellant connections and altered the location of propellant interfaces to ensure that fuel and oxidizer don’t mix. It also revised its verification procedures. Lyon stated that the changes made together significantly reduced the chance of another similar event in the future.

With those changes in place, Astra said it’s ready to proceed with the launch of its next vehicle, LV0007. That launch, the second of two under a U.S. Space Force contract and designated STP-27AD2, is scheduled for launch in one of two windows. The first window is from Oct. 27 to 31, while the second runs Nov. 5 to 12. The launch will be from Kodiak Island in Alaska, where the company has made three orbital launches.

There had been speculation in recent days that Astra was preparing for a new launch attempt based on the publication of a temporary flight restriction (TFR) Oct. 7 by the Federal Aviation Administration, restricting airspace in the vicinity of the Kodiak launch site for “space operations.” However, that TFR begins Oct. 19 and runs through Oct. 29, and is configured differently than TFRs for previous Astra launches there.

The upcoming launch will be the fourth orbital launch attempt for Astra, which failed to reach orbit on its first three launches but came close on its second, in December 2020. Lyon stated that the August launch confirmed changes made following the second launch. This included a closed-loop propellant control to manage propellants better and prevent an engine shut down like the one on the second launch.

The August launch also demonstrated improved guidance, navigation and control (GNC) software. That revised code, Lyon wrote, “was on full display in this launch when the rocket course-corrected after tipping sideways, making us all very happy with our GNC.”

Astra did not reveal launch plans beyond its next launch. However, at an Oct. 5 online meeting of the Small Payload Ride Share Association, an Astra official, Tom Williams, said the company would launch later this year from a second location that he did not identify but “we will hopefully announce shortly.” A leading candidate for that second site is Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 48, a multi-user pad intended for small launch vehicles like Astra’s that require minimal infrastructure.

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