A Secret Rocket That Launched From Alaska May Have Exploded

A separate launch from the same site in Alaska back in July 2017. Leah Garton/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A mysterious rocket launch that took place from Alaska earlier this month may have ended in failure, according to reports.

On July 20, Californian company Astra Space launched their “Rocket 1” from the Pacific Spaceport Complex, located on Kodiak Island, off the coast of mainland Alaska.

But in a statement that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sent to SpaceNews, the FAA noted the rocket “experienced a mishap”, with experts noting this may mean the rocket failed after launch. However, Craig Campbell, president of Alaska Aerospace who operate the launch site, said Astra Space were pleased with how it turned out.

“I can confirm that a launch from the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska occurred on Friday, July 20th and that the customer is very pleased with the outcome of the launch,” he said.

“While a post-launch team is reviewing the results of the launch, I can state that there was no material damage to our facilities as a result of this launch."

Not much is known about the launch, other than it was a suborbital flight – meaning the rocket would briefly enter space before returning to Earth.

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Back in April, The Register reported that the rocket would take an “inert upper stage on a sub-orbital trajectory on an azimuth of 188.5 degrees.” The launch was originally scheduled for April 5, but was delayed for unknown reasons just minutes prior to liftoff.

The Register also noted that, based on available documents, Rocket 1 appears to be about 12 meters (39 feet) tall and would be capable of taking 100 kilograms (220 pounds) into low-Earth orbit. This would make it a competitor for other small rocket launch companies like Rocket Lab in the US and Orbex in the UK.

Small launches like this are becoming increasingly sought after, not least as satellite technology continues to shrink. They enable quick, cheap launches into fairly low orbits, useful for a variety of purposes from science to communications.

“Historically, little orbiters have had to hitch costly rides on big rockets, which, as the adjectives imply, are meant for big satellites,” Wired noted last year. “But having dedicated providers that tailor to their shrunken-down needs means more smallsat companies can get to space better, cheaper, and quicker.”

At the time of writing, Astra Space had not yet responded to a request for comment. For now, the exact purpose and outcome of the Rocket 1 launch remains a bit of a mystery.

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