Astra Rocket 3.2 reaches house after taking off from Alaska

Rocket 3.2 launches in Kodiak, Alaska.

Astra / John Kraus

San Francisco-based startup Astra was the youngest U.S. rocket builder to hit space on Tuesday with the successful launch of its Rocket 3.2 vehicle from Kodiak, Alaska.

The missile was about to enter orbit, and Astra CEO Chris Kemp told reporters after launch that the vehicle had reached the target altitude of 390 kilometers but was “only half a kilometer per second short” of the target orbit speed.

“This has far exceeded our team’s expectations,” said Kemp.

Astra shared images captured by the rocket on the edge of space. The rocket carried no satellites or other payloads as the launch was a demonstration mission.

Astra was founded just over four years ago in October 2016. Headquartered in Alameda, California, Astra has raised approximately $ 100 million to date from investors including Advance (the investment arm of the family of late billionaire SI Newhouse), ACME Capital, Airbus, Ventures, Canaan Partners and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff .

The company’s missile is about 40 feet tall, making it a small launch vehicle category. These small rockets have become increasingly popular due to the increase in the number of small satellites and spacecraft, often the size of a mailbox or washing machine, in search of trips into orbit. The Astra rocket is said to be able to carry up to 100 kilograms into orbit.

A close-up of the Rocket 3.2 engines shortly after takeoff.

Astra / John Kraus

Currently, the small rocket business is dominated by Rocket Lab, which has launched 16 missions with its 60-foot electron rocket to put up to 300 kilograms into low-earth orbit. Elon Musk’s SpaceX also often contains small satellites as “ridesharing” facilities on its much larger Falcon 9 rocket, which is 230 feet high and can carry up to 22,800 kilograms into orbit.

Along with SpaceX and Rocket Lab, Astra is the third US company to have started privately developing a satellite launch system and successfully reaching space since the turn of the century.

Astras Rocket 3.0 during launch preparations in Kodiak, Alaska.

Astra / John Kraus

As the name suggests, Rocket 3.2 is the latest in Astra’s work developing his vehicle. Rocket 3.0 was destroyed on the launch pad due to a valve problem in March while the company was preparing it for launch.

Rocket 3.1 successfully launched on September 11th, but failed to get out of the atmosphere. The missile’s engines fired for about 30 seconds before a problem with its guidance system caused the engines to shut down and the missile to fall back to Earth. Chris Kemp, CEO of Astra, said after Rocket 3.1 launched he expected it to be the first of three flights before the company hits orbit.

Astra uses a very small team of local staff to launch its missiles and sends about half a dozen people to Alaska to prepare for launch.

Rocket 3.2 is on the launchpad in Kodiak, Alaska.

Astra / John Kraus

The company has customer contracts for a few dozen launches once it begins commercial service. A single customer can purchase a dedicated Astra launch for around $ 2.5 million. That makes its rockets competitive against other companies that offer small rocket trips into space, as Rocket Labs Electron costs about $ 7 million.

Kemp said that Astra will be flying payloads in the upcoming Rocket 3.3 launch, which the company expects early next year.

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