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NASA Satellites Lost as Astra Rocket Mission Goes Awry

It's the second time a batch of small satellites was lost during an Astra launch.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Astra's rocket stands against the sky prior to the Tropics-1 launch.
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Astra's rocket stands against the sky prior to the Tropics-1 launch.

Astra's rocket suffered an in-flight issue resulting in the loss of NASA's Tropics-1 satellites.

Brady Kenniston/Astra

Space can be a heartbreaker. 

Commercial space company Astra is still working out some kinks with its rocket system. Astra launched the Tropics-1 mission for NASA on Sunday and it got off to a good start, but failed to deliver two cubesats -- small satellites -- into orbit.  

The launch took place from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. "We had a nominal first stage flight. The upper stage shut down early and we did not deliver the payloads to orbit," Astra tweeted on Sunday

In February, a different Astra launch, for the Elana 41 mission, also failed to place NASA satellites into orbit.

Tropics stands for "time-resolved observations of precipitation structure and storm intensity with a constellation of smallsats." It was designed to use six small satellites to study storm systems in the tropics. "While we are disappointed in the loss of the two Tropics CubeSats, the mission is part of NASA's Earth venture program, which provides opportunities for lower-cost, higher risk missions," the space agency said in a statement on Sunday. NASA said the Tropics mission would still be able to meet its science objectives with the four remaining, not-yet-launched satellites.

A group of former NASA and SpaceX folks are behind Astra, which aims to offer affordable access to space, making it a good match for the Tropics satellites. Sunday's mission was scheduled to be the first of three Tropics launches for NASA.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Astra will investigate what went wrong with Tropics-1. NASA won't be rushing toward another launch with Astra while this plays out. "NASA will lend any expertise needed but would expect to pause the launch effort with Astra while an investigation is being conducted to ensure we move forward when ready," the space agency said.

The loss of the satellites is tough, but the road to space has always been paved with technical glitches, mission failures and adjustments. As NASA said, it recognizes "the risks inherent in a new launch provider."