TROPICS launch agreement changed by NASA and Astra

NASA and Astra Space modified the launch contract that had been originally handed to them when Astra retired the launch vehicle that was intended to launch the cubeSat constellation. A $7.95 million contract awarded to Astra in February 2021 served as the funding source for the NASA Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) cubeSat program. Astra was hired to use its Rocket 3.3 launch vehicle three times. After the initial launch, which took place in June but failed to enter orbit, two TROPICS satellites were lost. To concentrate on the larger Rocket 4, which has a payload capability of up to 600 kilograms as opposed to 50 kilograms for Rocket 3.3, Astra stated on August 4 that it will be retiring the Rocket 3.3 vehicle. Even though Astra claimed at the time that it was in talks with NASA about using Rocket 4 to launch the remaining TROPICS satellites, the larger vehicle would not have been a good fit for those 3U cubeSat and would have required NASA to wait until possibly 2024 given Astra's projected development schedule for Rocket 4. On September 28, NASA declared that it had reached an agreement with Astra to alter the terms of the contract. The TROPICS cubeSat launch contract will now be used for "the launch of comparable scientific payloads'' on Rocket 4. To launch the TROPICS cubeSat in time for the 2023 hurricane season, the agency will request bids from businesses that are a member of its Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) contract. Astra was one of the twelve businesses chosen by NASA for the VADR contract in January, and Firefly Aerospace was most recently added. These businesses are qualified to submit bids in response to NASA task orders for the launching of tiny satellites, either as stand-alone missions or as rideshare payloads on larger spacecraft. We are happy to continue our solid relationship and welcome NASA as a launch customer for the rocket that Astra will construct in the future, according to Astra. The terms of the contract update, including the number of launches it will cover and the probable scheduling of those launches, have not been made public by either the company or NASA. The cause of the Rocket 3.3 launch failure on June 12 is still under study. Astra stated in a subsequent statement on Sept. 28 that the cause of the failure had been narrowed down to a fault with the upper stage engine, which shut down early after consuming fuel at a faster pace than expected. Astra reported that the issue had been validated in ground tests, which produced data similar to the failure condition in flight. More information will be released once the company's failure investigation, which is being conducted in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration, is completed. Over the previous six months, the price of Astra stock has fallen dramatically. The stock was trading at $3.25 at the start of May; as of right now, it is worth $0.68 per share. After combining with blank-check manufacturer Helicity, the company started trading on the open markets in June of last year.