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On Monday, Astra’s final launch attempt was “scrubbed,” or postponed to an unspecified date, just 53 seconds before takeoff because of data that suggested it might be unsafe to move forward with the flight. That means the company is no longer eligible to win the DARPA launch challenge.
“Fundamentally, safety is our top priority, and winning the challenge would’ve been fantastic today, but our objective really is to reach orbit in as few flights as possible,” Astra co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp said in a live streamed interview directly after the launch was called off. “So we really want to use this rocket, and we want to get out there again when we know everything is perfect. Unfortunately, that wasn’t today.”
But DARPA launch challenge project manager Todd Master noted that Astra’s team met several significant goals of the challenge, including setting up its rocket system at a pad that it had never before launched from in just two weeks.
“We think that even being able to get to the point we got to will demonstrate to folks that this is something that is right on the cusp of possible,” Master said. “And we anticipate that, in the very near future, we’ll be able to see those approaches succeed.”
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A California-based company is trying to prove that it has the technology to launch payloads into space with only a few weeks notice, an effort that could revolutionize the space industry.
The company Astra, a startup based in Alameda, was set to launch their first payload Tuesday from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska, but the launch was postponed due to severe weather in the area. The launch is Monday, depending on weather conditions.
Astra’s launch is part of a tech innovation challenge from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the Department of Defense.
WATCH LIVE: Astra tries to launch rocket as part of DARPA Launch Challenge
The DARPA Launch Challenge directions are straightforward, but the task is daunting: successfully launch and deliver two different payloads from two different locations into low Earth orbit with only 30 days’ notice and no prior knowledge of the payloads or locations.
A traditional space launch process begins a year in advance of the actual launch, but DARPA, whose mission is to invest in technologies that improve national security, is looking for ways to expedite the process.
For its initial orbital launch, Astra’s rocket will aim to achieve a velocity that allows its payload — a satellite provided by DARPA— to enter Earth’s orbit.
One of the project’s primary goals is to bring down the overall cost of access to space. Companies that can currently launch objects into space can charge anywhere from tens of millions of dollars to over $100 million per launch to send satellites into low Earth orbit and beyond.
“Through the challenge, we are trying to drive down a price point so that satellite providers could maybe pay $1 million to no more than $3 million per launch,” DARPA chief of communications Jared Adams said.
DARPA regularly funds technology challenges. In the 1960s and 1970s, it funded the project that led to the creation of the internet.
Out of the more than 50 teams that applied to participate in this year’s contest, Astra is the only one remaining in the challenge. Some of the companies went out of business. Others withdrew from the challenge, saying they needed to focus on other priorities.
If Astra successfully launches its payload, it will receive $2 million and the go-ahead to begin the second launch initiative. If that second launch is also successful, DARPA will give the startup an additional $10 million.
Astra co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp said in recent years companies have begun using simple technology — the kind you would find in a cell phone or a personal computer — to construct satellites. That’s made satellites easier and cheaper to build, leading to a demand for more rocket launches that will take the satellites into orbit.
“Really, the whole aerospace industry has been designed around a few dozen launches per year of satellites that cost upwards of a billion dollars each,” Kemp said. “When a satellite costs a fraction of a million dollars versus a fraction of a billion dollars, it has a huge disruptive impact on the entire space industry.”
The question now is whether startups like Astra can facilitate frequent rocket launches to put the satellites into use.
Astra’s rocket is relatively small, and the company has designed it to be mass produced and fit inside a standard shipping container. That’s compared to traditional, larger rockets with multiple parts that must be transported separately and then assembled at the launch site.
The company’s factory, which is located outside of San Francisco, is capable of manufacturing one rocket per day, Kemp said. If the company can launch the rockets as fast as it makes them, it would amount to between 300 and 400 launches per year, which would make up about 80 percent of all launches worldwide.
That many launches could come with “unexpected side effects” as the earth’s orbit becomes more crowded with satellites, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“The amount of stuff that is planned to be going on in-low Earth orbit is orders of magnitude bigger than what we’ve gotten used to,” he said. “There are going to be challenges for traffic control in space.”
In order to mass produce rockets in a way that’s cost effective and efficient, Astra’s rockets are made out of “very thin aluminum” as opposed to traditional expensive and labor-intensive materials like carbon fiber. Aluminum, Kemp noted, is one of the most abundant elements on the planet. Astra’s rocket will be nearly entirely burned up in the atmosphere, and whatever makes its way back down to Earth will eventually dissolve in the salty water of the ocean.
Kemp compared the current space industry to the railroads of the early 20th century, when companies would need to plan six months to a year in advance to transport their cargo.
“We’re building what you might think of as FedEx delivery trucks or commuter jets to really dramatically increase access to space, so that all of these small startups that are forming, that are making very small satellites, can get them into space within a few weeks or a few months versus a few years,” Kemp said.
McDowell, said the U.S. military, in addition to private companies, have an interest in being able to launch rockets on a short timeframe.
“A lot of the motivation is if there’s a war that involves anti-satellite weapons, you might want to replenish your satellites very quickly,” he said.
McDowell notes that the technology is not entirely new. He said during the 1960s during the space race with Russia, the U.S. was launching satellites every few days. As rockets became more sophisticated to fulfill other needs, they were harder to launch quickly. Plus, McDowell said until now there has not been the need to launch satellites as frequently as during the height of the Cold War.
Astra is tamping down expectations for its upcoming launch. Kemp likened a successful first launch to someone who is new to golfing getting a hole in one on their very first try. Instead, the company’s definition of success would be to make enough progress on the first flight to deliver a satellite into orbit by their third launch.
Kemp said now is an “exciting time” to be in the space business. If the world’s largest tech companies are focused on using space to improve their products and create new ones, he said, we could be in for a “historic transition” where space isn’t simply a thing that’s “infrequently accessed by governments.”
“I think in this new frontier, we need to have faster, more frequent access to space,” Kemp said. “And you don’t do that with billion dollar rockets. You do it with million dollar rockets, and lots of them.”
Isabella Isaacs-Thomas is a digital reporter on the PBS NewsHour's science desk.
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