Astra communication constellation
Astra Space communication satellite constellation
• November 5, 2021: Small launch vehicle developer Astra Space Operations Inc., of Louisville, Colorado, filed an application with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) Nov. 4 to deploy a constellation of more than 13,600 satellites that would provide broadband services. 1)
The constellation, Astra said, would provide services at V-band frequencies, with the 13,620 satellites deployed into low Earth orbit in three phases to provide global coverage. The satellite could use other frequencies as well, the company noted, but those services are not included in this application.
"The Astra Constellation will provide global secure, high-bandwidth connectivity to enable communications services, environmental and natural resource applications, and national security missions," the company said in its application. "Given the financing secured through its recent public offering, vertically integrated launch capability, and space systems design and operations experience, Astra is well-positioned to develop this project and to introduce new space-based services, including communications solutions, while maintaining a safe space environment, utilizing spectrum efficiently and without causing harmful radiofrequency interference."
Figure 1: Astra Space, currently known for developing small launch vehicles, filed an application with the FCC Nov. 4 for a constellation of more than 13,600 broadband satellites (image credit: Astra/John Kraus)
The first phase of the constellation would involve a single plane of 40 satellites in an equatorial orbit at an altitude of 700 kilometers. "This Phase is designed to allow Astra to introduce continuous service in a test market as soon as possible, learn from initial operations and customer feedback, and iteratively improve all elements of the service to better meet customer needs," the company stated.
A second phase would launch 2,296 satellites into sun-synchronous and mid-inclination orbits at altitudes of 690 to 700 kilometers. That would allow the company to provide global service. A third phase, with 11,284 satellites, would operate in orbits from 380 to 400 kilometers to provide additional capacity.
Each satellite will have a "novel" phased-array antenna with an effective aperture of 20 centimeters along with two gimbaled parabolic antennas. The spacecraft will be equipped with electric propulsion systems for maneuvering and deorbiting. Astra acquired Apollo Fusion, a developer of electric propulsion systems for satellites, earlier this year.
The application did not disclose the size of the satellites, but noted that the satellites, which will be built in-house by Astra, can be launched at least two at a time on the company's rockets. The payload of those rockets is slated to increase over the next several years, with a goal of 500 kilograms. Astra, though, did note it is "willing and able to utilize third party launch providers in part or in whole for Constellation deployment."
Astra had not previously disclosed plans for a broadband satellite constellation. It did announce earlier this year that it would get into the satellite business, developing satellite buses designed for launch on its rockets that could carry a wide range of payloads for customers, but didn't discuss any intent to develop its own constellation.
The filing was one of several that companies made with the FCC on Nov. 4, a deadline set by the FCC three months earlier for the latest processing round for V-band satellite systems. Hughes Network Systems, Inmarsat and Telesat also filed applications for V-band satellite constellations, but none anywhere near as large as what Astra proposed.
In the near term, Astra is gearing up for its next attempt to reach orbit with its Rocket 3.3 vehicle. The company tweeted Nov. 3 that the earliest launch opportunity for that rocket from its Kodiak Island, Alaska, site is Nov. 8, during a window that runs through Nov. 14.
The vehicle, called LV0007, will be Astra's fourth attempt to reach orbit and the first since an Aug. 28 launch attempt. On that launch, one of five first-stage engines shut down within a second of liftoff, causing the vehicle to drift sideways for nearly 15 seconds before it depleted enough propellant that the thrust from the remaining engines could allow the rocket to ascend. The launch was terminated two minutes later around the time of reaching maximum dynamic pressure.
An investigation concluded that a quick-disconnect system for fuel lines malfunctioned, allowing fuel to leak through it and be ignited by engine exhaust. That created an "over-pressure event" that caused a fuel pump to turn off, shutting down an engine.
• November 12, 2021: A week after a filing an application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a constellation of more than 13,000 satellites, Astra Space executives said that their near-term focus remains on developing their launch capabilities. 2)
- Astra released its third quarter financial results Nov. 11, showing an adjusted net loss of $34.5 million for the quarter and $72.4 million for the year to date. In the earnings call about the results, though, much of the attention was on the filing the company made with the FCC Nov. 4 to develop a constellation of 13,620 satellites operating in V-band.
- Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, said the filing was driven by the near-term opportunity offered by the FCC to request V-band spectrum, with a Nov. 4 deadline for filing applications. Astra was one of several companies submitting applications for tens of thousands of potential satellites, although its application has the largest single number of satellites.
- "Spectrum is incredibly hard to get. It's incredibly valuable," he said. "In the not-too-distant future, the demand for spectrum access will significantly outstrip supply. This view of spectrum is what motivated us to file the V-band spectrum application to prepare Astra for its next stage of growth."
- Kemp also emphasized the three-phase approach to the proposal, which would start with a single equatorial plane of 40 satellites. "That provides a service that we believe has real value to customers in phase one," he said. "We can deploy a basic service that allows us to learn and iterate."
Figure 2: Astra's latest rocket, LV0007, is being prepared for launch from Kodiak Island, Alaska, within the next week, the company said Nov. 11 (image credit: Astra Space)
- A second phase would place 2,296 satellites into orbit to provide global service, with a third phase involving an additional 11,284 satellites for additional capacity. Those future phases, he said, would depend on customer demand. "We can deploy that constellation, frankly, as we start to see traction with those space services," he said. "There's no requirement that we deploy those 13,000 satellites, but in the license we have to contemplate the full deployment of the entire constellation."
- Kemp didn't give a schedule for developing the constellation. It may take several years for the FCC to review and approve this latest series of V-band applications. The FCC approved a Boeing proposal for a 147-satellite V-band constellation Nov. 3 nearly five years after the company filed its proposal. One approved, the company would have six years to deploy half the constellation and nine years for the entire fleet.
- He insisted the company's near-term focus is on its small launch vehicles. The latest Rocket 3.3 vehicle, with the serial number LV0007, is currently on Kodiak Island, Alaska, for an upcoming launch for the U.S. Space Force. That launch was expected for earlier this month, but Kemp said he expected it to occur "in the next week or so." The Federal Aviation Administration has airspace restrictions in place for the launch Nov. 14 and 15 as well as Nov. 19 and 20.
- "Our focus right now is on delivering a satellite to orbit so that we can begin to deliver for our customers on the launch services contracts that we have, and be recognizing revenue in our launch services business," he said. The FCC filing is among what he called the "long-lead items" for developing satellites that can launch on its rockets to provide services.
- Astra has yet to place a payload into orbit, having failed on three orbital launch attempts dating back to September 2020. The most recent launch attempt on Aug. 28 failed because of a problem with quick-disconnect system for fuel lines leading into the rocket that caused one of the first stage's five engines to shut down less than a second after liftoff.
- Kemp praised his employees and Astra's partnership with the FAA to quickly investigate the issue and prepare for this launch. "Developing an orbital launch system is incredibly difficult," he said. "While we can't guarantee that the current test flight will be successful, we strongly believe that launching again with the changes that we just made is the fastest and most capital-efficient path to success."
- If the LV0007 launch is successful, Kemp said the company could perform its next launch before the end of the year. That vehicle, LV0008, is nearing completion, while work is underway on the next two vehicles, LV0009 and LV0010.
Launch: Astra Space's Rocket 3.3 successfully reached orbit on a 20 November 2021 launch, the fourth orbital launch attempt by the small launch vehicle startup. 3)
The Rocket 3.3 vehicle, with the serial number LV0007, lifted off at 1:16 a.m. EST (06:16 UTC)) from Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska on Kodiak Island. Astra scrubbed a launch attempt the previous day after more than two hours of delays.
Orbit: Near circular orbit with an altitude of 500 km and an inclination of 86º.
Figure 3: Astra Space's Rocket 3.3 vehicle, designated LV0007, lifts off 20 November 2021 from Kodiak Island, Alaska, on the company's first successful orbital launch (image credit: NASASpaceflight LLC and Astra Space Inc.)
The flight went as planned, with the first stage firing for about three minutes. The upper stage then separated and fired its single engine for approximately five and a half minutes, injecting the stage into an orbit nearly 500 kilometers high.
The launch carried a payload for the Space Test Program called STP-27AD2 through a contract arranged by the U.S. Space Force (USSF) through the Defense Innovation Unit. The payload, designed to measure environmental conditions on the vehicle in flight, intentionally did not separate from the upper stage.
This was the fourth attempt by Astra to reach orbit. The previous attempt, Aug. 28, failed when one of five first-stage engines shut down within a second of liftoff. The company blamed the failure on a quick-disconnect system for propellant lines that leaked fuel, which ignited in an enclosed space between the rocket and launch platform, severing the connection to electronics controlling the fuel pump for that engine.
Two other launch attempts last year also failed to reach orbit. The second of those, in December 2020, nearly reached orbit. The upper stage ran out of fuel seconds before its planned shutdown, leaving it about 0.5 kilometers per second short of orbital velocity.
"The team has worked hard on this for so many years, seeing iteration after iteration, failure after failure, lead to success," Chris Kemp, chief executive and co-founder of Astra, on the launch webcast.
Astra executives reported in an Nov. 11 earnings call that they hoped to launch the next vehicle, LV0008, before the end of this year, pending the outcome of this launch. That vehicle was nearing completion at the time of the call, with LV0009 and LV0010 in production.
• November 22, 2021: After reaching orbit for the first time, Astra Space executives said they are ready to begin commercial operations of their small launch vehicle and scale up production, while also preparing to test a new vehicle next year. 4)
- Astra's Rocket 3.3 reached orbit Nov. 20 on a mission for the U.S. Space Force. The launch, from Kodiak Island, Alaska, placed into orbit a small payload for the Space Force, which remained attached to the upper stage, measuring environmental conditions during the rocket's ascent.
- In a call with reporters Nov. 22, Astra executives said they were still reviewing the data from the flight, the company's fourth attempt to reach orbit and the first successful one, but were pleased with the performance of the rocket. "The launch and the flight was really nominal, including stage separation," said Benjamin Lyon, executive vice president and chief engineer at Astra.
- The company said the rocket placed the upper stage and its attached payload into its planned 500 km orbit at an inclination of 86 º. Data from the U.S. Space Force shows the stage is in an orbit between 438 and 507 km altitude at an inclination of 86.01º.
- The launch of this rocket, called LV0007, demonstrated changes made after the failure of LV0006 in August. The launch failed when one of five first stage engines shut down within a second of liftoff after propellant leaked from disconnected lines and ignited in the base of the vehicle.
- It also demonstrated Astra's ability to work in adverse conditions, namely cold temperatures. "We learned a ton beyond the vehicle, about the entire launch system that supports it," he said.
- That included a 20 cm water main that froze solid at the pad, said Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra. "We had never operated in these freezing temperatures before," he said.
- The initial review of the data suggests no changes are needed for LV0008, the next Rocket 3.3 vehicle nearing completion at Astra's headquarters in Alameda, California. The company said in an earnings call earlier this month that LV0008 could launch later this year, although Kemp did not give a launch date in the briefing.
- "We're working out all the details about the dates and the range," he said. "Don't expect a long wait for the next flight."
- The company hasn't disclosed the payload for the next launch, but Kemp said the company was ready to move into commercial service with Rocket 3.3. "We're out of the test flight phase," he said. "We'll be resuming with commercial payloads for our customers in low Earth orbit." He added there will be test flights next year of Rocket 4, a larger version of the vehicle, while Rocket 3 commercial launches continue.
- While dozens of companies are working on small launch vehicles, only a handful have successfully reached orbit, including Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and several Chinese ventures. Astra says it will now turn its attention from development to production of the Rocket 3 vehicles.
- "Astra and only a few other companies — I can count them on one hand — have done this ever. For all the companies that try and all the money that goes into this, very few companies actually succeed," Kemp said. "This is really hard, and it's also going to be hard to scale up production and do this reliably. We're just getting started here. There's a lot of hard work to do."
1) Jeff Foust, "Astra files FCC application for 13,600-satellite constellation," SpaceNews, 5 November 2ß21, URL: https://spacenews.com/astra-files-fcc-application-for-13600-satellite-constellation/
2) Jeff Foust, "Astra says focus is on launch as it files application for satellite constellation," SpaceNews, 12 November 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/
3) Jeff Foust, "Astra's Rocket 3.3 reaches orbit on fourth attempt," SpaceNews, 20 November 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/astras-rocket-3-3-reaches-orbit-on-fourth-attempt/
4) Jeff Foust, "Astra ready for commercial operations after first successful launch," SpaceNews, 22 November 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/astra-ready-for-commercial-operations-after-first-successful-launch/
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).