CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – After Astra's first rocket launch from Florida failed to deliver NASA payloads to orbit, the company says an initial investigation reveals an electrical issue was the cause of the mishap.
Astra's Rocket 3.3 launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base on Feb. 10, carrying four CubeSats under NASA's Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 contract. However, after the rocket reached orbit, cameras on the vehicle showed it spinning out of control, and Astra later said the CubeSats did not deploy.
Three of the spacecraft were from U.S. universities, and a fourth CubeSat is a demonstration mission for Johnson Space Center.
"We are deeply sorry to our customers NASA, University of Alabama, University of New Mexico and UC Berkeley," the company said in a statement after the payloads were lost.
Astra has been investigating the incident along with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Less than a month after the launch, Astra Senior Director of Mission Management and Assurance Andrew Griggs released the company's preliminary findings.
Griggs said the rocket nose cone or fairings did not fully open before the upper stage ignition because of an electrical issue.
"The separation mechanisms (our fairing has 5 of these) were fired in an incorrect order, which resulted in off-nominal movement of the fairing that caused an electrical disconnection," Astra officials said. "Due to the disconnection, the last separation mechanism never received its command to open, which prevented the fairing from separating completely before upper stage ignition."
The root cause was due to an error in the engineering drawing for the fairing harness, according to Astra. While the harness was installed as instructed the drawing has errors leading to two channels being swapped.
Astra said it was able to recreate the failure at its factory and is highly confident it has resolved the issue.
Astra said it also found a software issue that meant the upper stage engine was unable to use its thrust control system causing the rocket to tumble in space.
Griggs said Astra has implemented new testing and is confident the issues have been resolved.
"Here at Astra, iteration and learning are core parts of our culture," Griggs said. "I’ve been continuously impressed with the speed, passion, and diligence that the team showed as they worked through these complex issues to identify exactly what occurred and determine the right path forward to resolve each problem."
The company is preparing to return to the launchpad for its next mission.