Rocket launch company Astra will no longer send the remaining NASA TROPICS payloads to space, but will instead launch other “similar” science missions for the agency, the company announced Wednesday. The change to the launch agreement comes just over three months after the Astra’s first TROPICS launch failed after the top stage shut down before the payload was put into orbit.
NASA’s TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats) program includes a trio of launches aimed at sending a total of six Earth Science CubeSats into space. The TROPICS satellites will be used to measure variables such as humidity and pressure in storm systems — a need that is particularly prescient today, when Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida’s west coast.
Astra was awarded the launch contract for TROPICS in February 2021 for a total value of $7.95 million. It is unclear whether the amendment to this existing launch services agreement will change the value of the contract.
The company performed the TROPICS I launch with its Rocket 3.3 launcher, a system designed to be lightweight and inexpensive to launch. But just a few weeks after the failure of that mission, which resulted in a complete loss of payload, Astra announced a complete change to its business plan. Rather than continue launches with the Rocket 3, the company said it would re-manifest all launches on the significantly larger Rocket 4. That rocket, which CEO Chris Kemp said would have a payload of 600 kilograms, is yet to be launched. in development.
“Following TROPICS’ initial launch attempt, Astra and NASA have engaged in discussions about remaining launch attempts,” NASA said in a statement. “Astra then notified NASA of its intention to discontinue its Rocket 3.3 and indicated that the company may not resume launches before the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season.”
The 12 remaining companies eligible to provide launch services through NASA’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare mission programs can compete for the TROPICS contract. These companies include ABL Space Systems, Rocket Lab, Relativity, Firefly and Virgin Orbit.
In a separate update, Astra said the premature shutdown of the upper stage during the TROPICS I mission was due to “higher-than-normal fuel consumption”. The company added that engineers will conduct additional tests to verify the cause of the anomaly, but have narrowed it down to a problem with the upper stage motors. The study was conducted in conjunction with the US Federal Aviation Administration, which is the standard for all missile flight anomalies.
The price of the Astra share has fallen sharply in the past six months. In early May, the stock traded north of $3.25; today it is worth $0.68 per share. The company began trading in the public markets in June last year, following a merger with blank check company Holicity.