Astra’s first launch attempt from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island was scrubbed Sunday evening.
The launch seemed like a go, with only a slight delay for winds. But about 15 minutes from launch, a boat had wandered into the waterway hazard zone, an area south of Narrow Cape that must be clear for the launch.
According to Alaska Aerospace, which manages the launch complex, they hire a boat to position near Ugak Island and communicate with nearby vessels about the hazard zone when a launch is scheduled.
But, on Sunday, they could not clear the wandering boat before the launch window closed, so the launch was postponed.
Due to weather conditions, Astra did not attempt a launch Monday. But they plan to try again Tuesday.
Astra, a California-based aerospace company, is attempting to test launch Rocket 3.1, a small rocket capable of delivering small satellites to low orbit.
“We believe in achieving scale by making a relatively small launch vehicle that is very inexpensive to produce,” said Astro CEO and founder Chris Kemp. “Our objective is daily space delivery.”
Kemp said the small rocket has its advantages.
The rocket itself is 38 feet long and designed to hold 55 pounds of payload, but no payload will be on the test flight.
“We are keeping the rocket small so that we can focus on the small satellites,” he said. “At the very largest scale, we intend to be able to deliver one communications satellite to one of these mega-constellations that are being developed.”
Mega-constellation is the term used for a huge assortment of satellites in low orbit that work together to provide internet access all over the world. This is an alternative to terrestrial broadband and may be more reliable and faster for rural populations, including remote Alaska, according to the Department of Defense.
But a concern among local rocket launch critics is emissions, especially emissions that get into ocean waters.
Astra Chief Technical Officer Adam London said the emission footprint for this rocket is relatively small.
“Most of the rockets, in fact all of the rockets, launched before ours in Kodiak are solid propellants,” London said. “So they have in their exhaust aluminum and various other things. Our exhaust is primarily water, some carbon dioxide and various small chemicals. From an emission perspective, we are quite a bit more benign than other rockets that have traditionally been launched from Kodiak.”
Kemp compared the rocket’s emissions to an airplane’s.
“If a 737 flies over, the exhaust from jet engines typically contribute more hydrocarbons to the atmosphere than our rocket,” he said. “The rocket stays over Alaska for a short period of time before it heads down range. We like to say, if you planted a tree during every one of our launches, you would offset the CO2 from our launch.”
Astra’s objective is to achieve first-stage separation so that the rocket can reach orbit and release a payload. But they are also here to learn.
“Pretty much everything we learn is the additional upside,” Kemp said. “We’ll be delighted if that upper stage lights, and teaches us something so that our next flight can be more successful.”
Earlier this year, Astra attempted a launch as part of the defense department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency challenge. The launch failed, but Astra said they made some hardware and software changes, including valves that had failed due to overpressurization.
Fixing those problems during COVID-19 was a challenge. They had to furlough employees and faced disruptions to their supply chain of over 1,000 vendors.
Astra brought a smaller crew to Kodiak than usual. For previous launches, they had up to 30 launch staff. This time they have six.
Alaska Aerospace CEO Mark Lester explained that for past launches, 75% of staff were from out of state. As launches are increasing, Lester says 75% of the launch staff are now from Kodiak, and 90% are from Alaska.
Staff brought to the island for the launch have all tested negative for COVID-19. As part of their mitigation plan with the state, staff are wearing masks, implementing social distancing and increasing cleaning procedures.
Tuesday’s launch window is from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Astra will not be providing a live stream of the launch, but you can follow them on Twitter for live updates.