2/10/22 at 3:00 PM Est from SLC-46
Tests began last week at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for Astra Space’s first launch from Florida. This comes following the company’s successful demonstration mission in Alaska last November. The forty three foot tall rocket the company will launch measures four point the feet wide, which compares to about the same height as a Falcon 9 rocket payload fairing. Their vehicle, named Rocket 3.3 and identified by its tail number LV0008 was shipped from Astra’s headquarters in Alameda, California to Cape Canaveral for testing ahead of this mission.
Astra Space, founded in 2016 plans to eventually launch daily mission with small satellites to target a niche group in the launch market that’s full of competitors like Rocket Lab, and Virgin Orbit. On this mission, six CubeSats rode to orbit on a mission sponsored by NASA. Part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services, or VCLS program which awarded Astra Space 3.9 million dollars last year. This program is aimed at giving emerging small satellite launch providers some business, while also helping NASA officials familiarize themselves with the nascent industry.
“NASA is going to b flying more and more small spacecraft going into the future because we can do mighty things in small packages now,” Scott Higginbotham said. Higginbotham is the head of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative at the Kennedy Space Center. “So often we need a stable of small launch vehicles that are right sized to meet the needs of these small spacecraft because there will be times when we want to launch them on dedicated launches, versus always flying things rideshare on larger rockets.” he also stated.
Today’s mission follows Astra’s first successful launch into low Earth orbit from their site on Kodiak Island, Alaska which was sponsored by the U.S. military. Having a small stature as Astra’s rocket has allows the company to easily transport their launch vehicles from their headquarters in standard shipping containers, and also ships their ground support infrastructure, like a strong back tower and erector to each launch site. This allows the company to set up in any location needed, requiring only a flat concrete pad and electrical power. It takes the company about a week to set up for launch with roughly half a dozen on site engineers and technicians. The rest of the launch team remains behind at Astra’s launch control center in California where internet connection allows controllers to monitor the rocket and payloads from thousands of miles away.
Architecture is part of Astra’s strategy to streamline launch operations, using mass produced boosters, engines, and a lean support team. This approach, added with Astra’s ability to build, test, and iterate allows the company to quickly introduce upgrades and changes when needed.
All the CubeSats on board this first Cape Canaveral mission include two spacecraft on the CubeSat Radio Interferometry Experiment, or CURIE for short. This mission consists of two identical three unit CubeSats. Each the size of a shoe box with radio antennas which detect emissions from solar activity such as solar flares and coronal mass eruptions. These activities send charged particles through out our solar system, and affect our radio communications, satellite operations, electrical grids, and even spawn colorful auroral displays at the North and South pole. Developed by the University of California, Berkeley. Costing about 3.2 million dollars to develop these sats, most of the funding came through NASA.
Once these satellites are deployed in orbit they will separate by one or two mils adding a dimension to their tandem radio measurements. This will locate and track sources of radio emissions on the sun and is the first ever mission designed for radio interferometry in space. The goal is for future space missions to use radio interferometry to study the sun or distant astronomical sources.
A second mission named QubeSat, also developed by the University of California, Berkeley is a small spacecraft that will test a tiny gyroscope. A gyroscope is a device used to determine the orientation of satellites in space and this test subject is based on quantum mechanical interactions in imperfect diamonds. Created by blasting a synthetic diamond with nitrogen. When this takes place some of the mineral’s carbon atoms create a so called “nitrogen vacancy center” that are super sensitive to magnetic fields. A small spacecraft means obviously smaller components and the gyroscope on QubeSat can be fitted inside a nonsatellite if tests run successfully.
The fourth CubeSat onboard today’s launch was again designed by students. This time by the New Mexico State University. INCA (Ionospheric Neutron Content Analyzer) has a directional nutron spectrometer from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Date from INCA will contribute to understanding the radiation environments that satellites encounter and to the understanding of neutron air showers, which pose radiation hazard to occupants of high altitud aircraft such as airliners.
Keeping with the trend, the University of Alabama also launched a satellite onboard today’s flight to orbit. The BAMA 1 mission will demonstrate a drag sail device designed to help old satellites and space junk drop out of orbit. The sail will encounter air molecules from rarified atmosphere at the satellite’s altitude, in turn slowing its velocity enough to fall back to Earth.
Our final payload on the mission is a CubeSat dubbed R5-S1 and comes from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston Texas. NASA states the mission’s objectives include a demonstration of quick CubeSat development and testing technologies useful for in space inspection, which could make human spaceflight safer and more efficient in the future.
With their November success the company reached orbit in a little more than five years since its founding. That beats the six year mark it took SpaceX when it reach orbital success with Falcon 1 back in 2008. Faltering on their first three orbital launch attempts, it now has two successful missions under their belt and looks towards a promising future.