NASA Loses Two TROPICS Satellites in Astra Rocket Failure

Astra Rocket Liftoff

Two TROPICS CubeSats lift off atop an Astra Rocket 3 from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Credit: NASASpaceflight/Astra

NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission is a constellation of state-of-the-science observing platforms that will measure temperature, humidity, and precipitation at high resolution and with unprecedented frequency.

Two TROPICS CubeSats lifted off atop an Astra Rocket 3 from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida yesterday, June 12, 2022. Launch occurred at approximately 1:43 p.m. EDT. Things seemed to be going well at first, but after a nominal first stage flight, the upper stage of the rocket shut down early and failed to deliver the TROPICS CubeSats to orbit.

Soon after the failure, Astra tweeted: “We had a nominal first stage flight. The upper stage shut down early and we did not deliver the payloads to orbit. We have shared our regrets with @NASA and the payload team. More information will be provided after we complete a full data review.”

NASA TROPICS Constellation

Three pairs of satellites comprise the TROPICS constellation and will work in concert to provide microwave observations of storms on Earth, measuring precipitation, temperature, and humidity of a storm as often as every 50 minutes. Credit: NASA

NASA reports that while they are disappointed in the loss of the two TROPICS CubeSats, the mission is part of NASA’s Earth venture program, which provides opportunities for lower-cost, higher-risk missions. Despite a loss of the first two of six satellites, the TROPICS constellation will still meet its science objectives with the four remaining CubeSats distributed in two orbits. With four satellites, TROPICS will still provide improved time-resolved observations of tropical cyclones compared to traditional observing methods.

TROPICS is an Earth venture mission — science-driven, competitively selected, low-cost missions that provide opportunity for investment in innovative Earth science to enhance our capability to better understand the current state of the Earth system and to enable continual improvement in the prediction of future changes.

Astra Rocket Failure

A camera on the rocket shows an exhaust plume at the time the engine shut down early. Credit: NASASpaceflight/Astra

As the agency works with emerging launch providers for cost-effective launch capabilities to space, these types of missions are important to expand our scientific knowledge while fostering the U.S. commercial launch industry.

As a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licensed mission, the FAA and Astra will lead the investigation to understand what happened during the TROPICS-1 launch. NASA will lend any expertise needed but would expect to pause the launch effort with Astra while an investigation is being conducted to ensure we move forward when ready.

NASA’s Launch Services Program, which is managing the launch service for the mission, continues to work with emerging launch providers to deliver low-cost science missions into orbit with contracts that align with commercial practices, using less NASA oversight to achieve lower launch costs. Small satellites and Class D payloads tolerate relatively high risk and serve as an ideal platform for technical and architecture innovation, contributing to NASA’s science research and technology development.

Thanks to the transparency displayed by Astra, NASA has been involved in the investigation of Astra’s previous launch. Additionally, we have been engaged in discussions about lessons learned and corrective actions. We recognize the risks inherent in a new launch provider and will lend our assistance as needed.

NASASpaceflight and Astra partnered to broadcast this mission launch.

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