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Astra cancels all launches with its Rocket 3.3 rocket

Capitalism in space: Astra yesterday announced that it has canceled all further launches with its Rocket-3.3 rocket, and will instead focus on developing a larger version, dubbed Rocket-4, which it says will begin test flights in 2023.

The company says that it will no longer fly the Rocket 3.3 and move on to its larger Rocket 4 vehicle that it announced in May. One change is that the payload performance of the new rocket has doubled to 600 kilograms. Kemp didn’t disclose details of the design change other than an upgrade to its upper stage engine. Rocket 3.3, by contrast, had a payload capacity of no more than 50 kilograms.

“The feedback that we were getting from some of the larger constellation operators was that satellites were getting larger,” he said. Discontinuing the existing Rocket 3.3, he said, allowed the company to focus its resources on the new launch system, including increasing its payload capacity.

Essentially, Astra has left the field and is at present no longer an operational smallsat rocket company. It is also likely that its announced schedule for its upgraded rocket will not be met. Thus, expect customers to shift to other launch providers able to launch satellites, such as Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit.

Not surprisingly, the company’s stock plunged soon after this announcement.

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12 comments

  • Col Beausabre

    Which brings up the interesting questions, “What is a smallsat rocket” and “Is there a “sweet spot” between large and small that’s a big enough market to support one or more companies”

  • sippin_bourbon

    COL.

    Good questions. Rocketlab just announced their Investor Update will be in Sept. I am curious what they will say. But Astra’s R-4.0 is a direct competitor to Electron, Although I understand they have zero intention to try for re-usability, whereas Rocketlab’s efforts are still a work in progress.

    From the linked article:
    “NASA officials speaking at an Aug. 2 meeting of the agency’s Earth Science Advisory Committee suggested they had yet to decide how to launch the four remaining TROPICS cubesats. “We had contracted with a new and innovative launch company, and we knew we were taking some risk. In this case, the risk didn’t pay off,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth science division.”

    Background: Astra launched the first 2 of 6. Then lost the next two in a failure.

    Seems like an opportunity for Rocketlab to take this. Using their new “responsive launch” model they could send this up quick. Would be interesting to see of they get a shot at it.

  • sippin_bourbon

    I should have added, that just four months ago, Chris Kemp (Astra CEO) stated that they were seeing a big increase for launches. Was this real, or just spam to keep the stock price up.

    Rocketlab reports to their investors that they have a back log, which is interesting, considering the slower pace of their launches. By slower, I mean compared to the market leader, SpaceX , but still faster then Pegasus and Virgin Orbit. Also, Pegasus has been around since 1990. They have 45 launches. Electron’s first success was in 2018, and they are up to 26 out of 29 successes. The 3 failures were all in 2nd stage.

    Overall I am curious how many customers Astra is leaving waiting. How many were actually ready to launch.

    When R-4.0 comes around, how many customers will be willing to risk it, considering that R-3.x was not so successful.

    I am partial to Rocketlab, and do not hide it, but there are things about Astra I like, such as their plan to build a launch system that can be packed up, and take it anywhere to launch. Their are developing a launch control system in a container. The Rocket itself as well.
    They want to mass produce, which reduces cost of course. So long as you don’t make a Ford Pinto of the rocket world.

  • Jeff Wright

    I for one, welcome our HLLV overlords

  • sippin_bourbon

    Jeff

    Different market.
    The need for HLLV is not going away. But the need for small launch is not either.
    Especially as tech for satellites continue to get smaller.

  • Concerned

    I predict a big popping sound coming soon from the small launcher bubble. All of them realize that they must scale up their rocket size if they hope to make any kind of decent profit. But then there’s SpaceX standing in the way as they look up. Except for Relativity, reducing the costs of making small rockets to where they can be profitable launching tiny, cheap cubesats is pretty difficult if not impossible.. I don’t see a niche there that can support more than maybe a couple of these smaller companies and they will almost exclusively rely on military contracts.

  • sippin_bourbon commented: “So long as you don’t make a Ford Pinto of the rocket world.”

    Ford made over three million of the things, so not unsuccessful. Assuming you are referring to the ‘Unsafe At No Speed’ fuel tank in the hatchback.

    I’ve owned three Pintos, all wagons, one a 1978 Cruising Wagon (Silver with the ‘Special Graphics’). They all worked, and none blew up. A good overview of the fuel tank problem on the Wikipedia ‘Ford Pinto’ page.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Blair
    And yet the reputation exists for a reason. It was more the reputation I referred to. The same reputation that got them re-branded as “Escorts” in the 80’s.

    I rode in Pintos. My neighbor had one. It, too, never burst into flames after a fender bender. Some mid to late 80’s GM light trucks with side mounted tanks also were a safety issue, bursting into flame on side impacts. I owned one of those for a few years. It was a good truck.

    I thought Insafe at any speed was Nadler’s book about general auto design. I always think of the Corvair when I hear that title.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Concerned
    ” All of them realize that they must scale up their rocket size if they hope to make any kind of decent profit.”

    Do they? Or do they all focus on getting the costs down? NASA defines the small-lift rocket market as 5000kg and below. The largest (according the Wikipedia) in that market is a Chinese ZK-1a (maiden flight a few weeks ago) that launches 2000kg.

    Relativity is targeting 1250kg in their design, (still in dev, but looking good so far), The larger rocket they are designing is not a small lift rocket, and is still a long way off.

    The whole point of small launch market is that it does NOT compete with SpaceX.

    Relativity’s plan to get get costs down by using the giant 3D printer to print an entire rocket at once. From start to launch in 60 days.
    Nifty plan. After printing, I am curious then how much still must be added by hand.
    Rocketlab’s goal is 7 days (as stated in 2019). I cannot find anything stating if they reached that. Even if they fall short and it takes 3 or 4 times as long, they are ahead. And all of them are now being built with intent to re-use.

    The prime question that I will shake out of the competition in the small lift market is this:
    Will the re-usability of small lift vehicles lower the price as significantly as it did for SpaceX at the larger scale, OR will mass production of easier expendables lower manufacture costs enough to make it profitable. Fleet management vs assembly line.

    Right now, Rocket Lab is ahead of the game in this market, because they are the leader with 3.5 years experience actually launching. However, that does not guarantee anything. They have one other advantage as well, in that they are also diversified outside of launches and manufacture busses and parts for satellites. Right now, that appears to make more money than launches.

  • Edward

    Col Beausabre asked: “Which brings up the interesting questions, ‘What is a smallsat rocket’ and ‘Is there a “sweet spot” between large and small that’s a big enough market to support one or more companies’

    The sweet spot probably changes over time, but a smallsat is defined:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_satellite

    A small satellite, miniaturized satellite, or smallsat is a satellite of low mass and size, usually under 1,200 kg (2,600 lb).[1] While all such satellites can be referred to as “small”, different classifications are used to categorize them based on mass.

    The sweet spot changes over time. When SpaceX made its Falcon 1 for the smallsat market, they had foreseen that market. However, it didn’t materialize as early as SpaceX expected, and to stay in business, they needed to ramp up to the larger market quickly. By the time the smallest market had materialized, SpaceX was no longer in a good position to support it with the Falcon 1.

    The Astra Rocket-3.3 is set up for cubesats, which had looked like a growing market, but as with Falcon 1, it is not growing fast enough to support the company. This is not yet a “sweet spot.”

  • sippin_bourbon

    That 1250kg on Wikipedia is sourced by a company called Bryce Tech, who sourced it from the FAA.
    NASA’s definition is much smaller (by mass) at 180kg and 12 “units”, with a unit being some arrangement of 10x10x10cm, in various configurations. By that definition, the smallest cubesat is 10cm^3

    That is quite a disparity, in terms of mass. Who has the authority to set this standard, I am not certain.

    To further complicate things, Bryce Tech notes the mass classes on that table in their reports, but then label “Smallsats” as 600 and below. (“Definition used here, 600 kg and under, reflects the five smallest mass classes defined by the FAA”, -pg3 of the Bryce Tech report linked below).

    https://www.nasa.gov/content/what-are-smallsats-and-cubesats
    https://brycetech.com/reports/report-documents/Bryce_Smallsats_2020.pdf
    https://www.faa.gov/sites/faa.gov/files/space/additional_information/2018_AST_Compendium.pdf

    Small-lift is more about capacity, and is based on class of launch vehicle.
    NASA Definition:
    Small – Up to 2 Metric Tons (2000 kg)
    Medium – 2 to 20 MT
    Heavy – 20 to 50 MT
    Sup-Heavy – Greater than 50T.
    https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/500393main_TA01-ID_rev6-NRC-wTASR.pdf

    The FAA is more specific, tying the payload mass to specific orbit:
    Small launch vehicles are defined as those with a payload capacity of less than
    2,268 kg (5,000 lb) at 185 km (115 mi) altitude and a 28.5° inclination. Medium to
    heavy launch vehicles are capable of carrying more than 2,269 kg (5,002 lb) at 185
    km (115 mi) altitude and a 28.5° inclination.
    (same FAA source as above).

    Note, the latest FAA compendium is from 2018. They were good about an annual update to that point.
    The document is quite dated now. Your tax dollars at work.

  • sippin_bourbon

    The Bryce Tech site took me down a rabbit hole. The report they link from Wikipedia is 2 years old.
    I have no idea who they are, but they do appear to have some good data crunching.
    The 2022 report is here:
    https://brycetech.com/reports/report-documents/Bryce_Smallsats_2022.pdf

    I drop it here because it goes back to COL B’s original question, and shows some numbers and trends.
    The report has a whole section on trends.

    Not including Starlink and Oneweb, the average mass of small-sats is 181kg (down from a peak of 199 the year before).
    Average mass of ALL sats is trending down as well.
    Small sats are about 43% of all upmass (again, excluding Starlink and One Web).

    The trends are neat. There is a slide (#32) that illustrates why looking at the numbers without Starlink and Oneweb is helpful to make a better estimate about the direction of this market. Mega constellations skew the picture a bit away from the target customers of Rocket Lab, Astra, Relativity, etc.
    They are looking for smaller constellations or even one offs, that need either specific orbits that a Transporter/Sherpa cannot deliver, or a specific timeframe of delivery, that cannot be guaranteed by being a secondary payload.

    This has been a fun rabbit hole to visit.. but alas, SWMBO says I need to cut the grass before the rain hits.

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