Astra is preparing to launch the ELaNa 41 mission for NASA on February 5, the company’s first flight from Space Launch Complex 46 (SLC-46) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The launch vehicle for this mission will be LV0008, the third Rocket 3.3 vehicle, and the targeted launch window is between 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM EST (18:00 to 21:00 UTC).

The mission will be the first for Astra to deploy satellites into orbit, lifting four CubeSats into a 500-kilometer altitude, 41-degree inclination Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The CubeSats are built by three different universities and the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This will be the third launch of Rocket 3.3 with the last mission, STP-27AD2, successfully reaching orbit for the first time.

ELaNa stands for Educational Launch of Nanosatellites and is an initiative created by NASA to help students get practice in space-related fields. As part of the program, the students design, assemble, and test payloads together with NASA. The mission is also referred to as Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) Demo 2, part of NASA’s program to utilize dedicated small launch vehicles.

The first payload is the Ionospheric Neutron Content Analyzer (INCA), built by New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. Its focus will be the study of the neutron spectrum in LEO to improve space weather predictions and models and help to predict dangerous events for spacecraft. It features a newly developed spectrometer, which was designed by NASA´s Goddard Space Flight Center, in cooperation with the University of New Hampshire. It masses 3.8 kilograms.

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Another payload is the BAMA-1 technology demonstrator, developed by the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. The goal of BAMA-1 is to demonstrate a rapid deorbit capability of a satellite. For this, it will deploy a drag sail that will increase the atmospheric drag of the payload, and thus, help the satellite to de-orbit much quicker.

This technology could be used on operational satellites in the future as well, so they could deorbit faster at the end of their lifetime and reduce the amount of space debris that could endanger satellites, space stations, and other space assets. If this mission proves the concept, a second mission, called BAMA-2, might be planned at a later date.

The third payload onboard is QubeSat of the University of California, Berkeley. QubeSat is another technology demonstrator that plans to observe the effects of space on a quantum gyroscope. This could help a spacecraft in the future to accurately determine its attitude.

At last, the R5-S1 payload, developed by the Johnson Space Center, will fly on this mission. Its goal is to demonstrate the practical use of commercial off-the-shelf components for in-space inspection. Its second goal is to demonstrate the ability to build cost-effective CubeSats with cheap parts.

These student-built satellites are set to go to space tomorrow!

CubeSats from @UofAlabama, @NMSU, @UCBerkeley, and @NASA_Johnson are scheduled to lift off Feb. 5 on @Astra‘s ELaNa 41 mission—get the details: https://t.co/avzicYd9tX pic.twitter.com/22VFa5BQDW

— NASA (@NASA) February 4, 2022

The launch vehicle for the ELaNa 41 mission is LV0008, the third vehicle of Astra’s version 3.3 rocket. LV0008 was preceded by multiple test flights, including the Rocket 3.1 vehicle which flew in September 2020 from Kodiak, Alaska. After a guidance issue shortly after liftoff, that flight was terminated for range safety.

The next launch was Rocket 3.2. While it failed to successfully reach orbit in its test flight in December 2020, it was the first Astra rocket to reach space.

The first flight of Rocket 3.3, which is also the version to be used for this flight, was designated LV0006 and conducted in August 2021. After an engine failure right at liftoff, the vehicle could not provide the required thrust for the planned flight profile and thus was terminated about 150 seconds into flight.

On its second flight, Rocket 3.3 successfully reached orbit on November 19, 2021. The LV0007 vehicle managed to carry a test payload for the United States Space Force into the desired orbit. The payload was intentionally not released on that flight.

Today’s launch vehicle, LV0008, stands 13.1 meters high with a diameter of 1.32 meters and with two stages powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen. The first stage is powered by five Delphin engines that will produce around 145 kN of thrust at liftoff. Astra uses electric pumps to power the engines. The second stage uses a single pressure-fed Aether engine, which can produce a bit more than 3 kN of thrust.

Love seeing that blue meatball on the fairing!

Today @Astra static fired their LV0008 rocket for NASA’s ELaNa-41 mission.

(Photo: Astra / Brady Kenniston) pic.twitter.com/fZZytF0sja

— Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist) January 23, 2022

The LV0008 vehicle successfully completed a static fire test on January 22, before payload integration and other final launch preparations.

The pad used for this launch is Space Launch Complex 46 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.  This site has been previously used for rockets such as Lockheed Martin’s Athena rocket family and the Minotaur IV rocket operated by Northrop Grumman. Most recently, in July 2019, SLC-46 hosted the Orion Ascent Abort-2 mission.

After counting down through the propellant loading sequence, the rocket will ignite its first stage engines three seconds before lifting off. At T+ six seconds, the rocket will start the pitch-over maneuver. This will place the vehicle on a trajectory to target a 41-degree inclination orbit and begin gaining the horizontal velocity needed to achieve orbit.

After one minute and 10 seconds after liftoff, the rocket will experience Max-Q. This is where the rocket will endure the maximum amount of aerodynamic stress on the vehicle. It is one of the most critical phases of a rocket launch.

Astra LV0008 vertical at SLC-46 before launch. (Credit: Astra/John Kraus)

Later, at two minutes and 50 seconds, the propellants in the first stage will deplete. This is called Main Engine Cut-Off (MECO), as the five engines of the first stage are shut down. The stage is dropped 10 seconds later.

Five seconds after MECO, the fairing will be separated from the rocket. With the aerodynamic pressure of Earth’s atmosphere almost gone at this point, the payload does not need protection anymore, so the fairing is dropped to save weight for the last stage of this flight and also to release the upper stage.

At three minutes and five seconds after liftoff, the upper stage will ignite and from there burn for approximately five minutes and 25 seconds. After Second Engine Cut-Off (SECO) at about T+ eight minutes and 30 seconds, the upper stage and the four CubeSats will be in orbit. About ten seconds later, the deployment sequence will begin. All four payloads will be deployed over approximately 20 seconds.

(Lead photo: LV0008 vertical at SLC-46 before launch. Credit: Astra/John Kraus)

NASASpaceflight and Astra are partnering to broadcast the ELaNa 41 mission. As part of the partnership, Astra is covering some expenses associated with producing the broadcast.

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