Astra small satellites launch cancellation – what next for DARPA?

The first stage of small satellites to lift off from an Astra vehicle was delayed by bad weather conditions and then a technical anomaly at the Alaskan launch site. DARPA is optimistic about its 2nd phase that was to be executed before March 18.

Mankind may compete against nature, regularly launching ever more small satellites into orbit, but on February 29, mother nature was not working in DARPA’s favor. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency was set to oversee the launch of the Astra vehicle, Astra, on that day. However, strong winds and heavy clouds on Alaska’s Kodiak Island — DARPA’s intended launch site — interfered with their plans.

And then on the next scheduled launch date, 2nd March, a technical anomaly lead to the launch being cancelled completely, apparently bringing the competition to a grinding halt.

Astra Rocket in Alaska
The Astra rocket sits on the launch pad in Alaska ready to take small satellites into orbit.

Small satellites launch challenge: DARPA contest

This launch was supposed to be part of a large, $12 million challenge. The main goal of this program is to enable the military to launch small satellites into orbit quickly, gaining the US some points in a renewed space race. If Astra had taken off they would have secured $2 million with the potential of another $10 million for a second launch shortly after.

According to the contest rules, Astra had two weeks to execute mission number one. That made the 2nd March the last day of this mission’s deadline. The permitted time frame for the second mission would have ended on 18th March.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency remains optimistic even despite the failure of the first stage. They still see the project as a success, given that the vehicle got to the launch pad with its payload in place.

The latest Astra rocket (simply named 1 of 3) is already the third version of the 38-foot-tall rocket for small satellites launch. This vehicle was designed in 2016 but stayed in stealth mode until the recent competition.

If The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency manages to get Astra to execute the second stage of this contest in the next two weeks with the initial payload, this could bring plenty of positive changes to the US military defence system. However, realistically, it looks like the competition has come to an end. Astra have said they will be proceeding with their launch ambitions regardless of the set back and will very soon be taking small satellites into orbit.

Leave a Reply