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NASA maintains launch contract with Astra

The agency will solicit proposals from companies that are part of its VADR contract for smallsat launch services to launch the Tropics cubesats in time for the 2023 hurricane season.
Picture credit: NASA

Astra and NASA have agreed to modify the terms of the existing launch services agreement for the agency’s Tropics constellation, for the launch of comparable scientific payloads on Astra’s Rocket 4.0 in the future.

Recognising the urgent science needs, NASA is adjusting its launch services plan to complete the timely launch of a CubeSat constellation designed to improve understanding of tropical cyclones.

The agency’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission launch service now will be competed under the agency’s Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) IDIQ contract targeting the 2023 hurricane season.

NASA selected commercial partner Astra in 2021 to provide launch services for Tropics across three launches using the company’s Rocket 3.3 launch vehicle. On June 12, 2022, after a nominal first-stage flight, the upper stage of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 shut down early and failed to deliver the first two Tropics CubeSats to orbit. NASA currently is participating in the launch investigation, led by Astra and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Following the first Tropics launch attempt, Astra and NASA engaged in discussions regarding the remaining launch attempts. Astra then notified NASA of its intent to discontinue its Rocket 3.3 and indicated the company would potentially not resume launches prior to the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season. The VADR contract allows the 13 companies selected this year to compete for the rebid of the Tropics launch services, giving the agency and external stakeholders the ability to use Tropics data sooner.

Tropics is an Earth Venture mission – science-driven, competitively selected, low-cost missions that provide an opportunity for investment in innovative Earth science to enhance our capability to better understand the current state of the Earth system and to enable continual improvement in the prediction of future changes. The VADR contract allows NASA to nurture the emerging commercial market by awarding launch providers more risk-tolerant payloads such as Tropics.