Rocket Lab launches 2 tiny NASA hurricane-watching probes to orbit
An Electron Rocket Lab rocket launches the second set of TROPICS hurricane study pods for NASA on May 25, 2023. (Image credit: Rocket Lab)
The second set of NASA’s TROPICS spacecraft launched Thursday night (May 25), completing the agency’s hurricane study miniconstellation.
The two small satellites lifted off atop a Rocket Lab Electron vehicle from the company’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s North Island on Thursday at 11:46 p.m. EDT (0346 GMT May 26).
Electron deployed the pair of cubesats as planned about 34 minutes after liftoff, Rocket Lab confirmed via Twitter.
The launch was originally targeted for midnight EDT (0400 GMT) on Thursday, but Rocket Lab pushed it back nearly 24 hours due to bad weather.
The launch, called “Coming to a Storm Near You,” was Rocket Lab’s second for the TROPICS program, which stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of small compactions”.
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Upload confirmed! Congratulations to the launch team on our 37th Electron launch and our mission partners at @NASA @NASA_LSP @NASAAmes: the TROPICS constellation is officially in orbit! pic.twitter.com/xAy7ltg7m1 May 26, 2023
Rocket Lab’s previous TROPICS launch, dubbed “Rocket Like a Hurricane,” sent two constellation pods of four spacecraft into low Earth orbit on May 7. It is hoped that the four satellites will all be operational in time for the start of the 2023 North American hurricane season.
“The number of hurricanes we’re experiencing each year is increasing because of climate change, and the intensity of these storms is also increasing,” said Jane McNichol, mission manager at Rocket Lab, during a May 7 pre-launch press conference.
“The current technology we have in orbit to monitor the development of hurricanes may only be able to check these storms every two hours, but within that time, we can see an increase in storm intensity,” she added.
McNichol said TROPICS will investigate severe tropical storms in terms of precipitation, temperature and humidity almost hourly. Such data has the potential to save lives and livelihoods, she stressed.
The TROPICS spacecraft sit in a unique low Earth orbit over the tropical regions of the planet. Their orbits are inclined so that they can travel over any given storm about once an hour.
The fast-refresh microwave measurements that TROPICS will make are a big boost, NASA officials said. Current weather-tracking satellites can make similar measurements, but only once every six hours.
“Providing more frequent images will not only improve our situational awareness when a hurricane forms,” said Karen St. Germain, director of the Earth Science Division at NASA headquarters in Washington. “The data will provide information on patterns that help us determine how a storm is changing over time, which in turn helps improve forecasts from our partners like the National Hurricane Center and the Joint Warning Center. Typhoon.”
Rocket Lab is the second company to launch TROPICS cubesats. The first, the California-based Astra, attempted to lift two of them in June 2022, but its rocket suffered an in-flight anomaly and the pods were lost. NASA then selected Rocket Lab to launch the remaining four TROPICS spacecraft over two missions.
Those two flights were initially set to launch from Rocket Lab’s US site, at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, later this year. But the location was moved to the country of New Zealand so that the four TROPICS domes could fly faster and be ready for the Northern Hemisphere hurricane season.
The constellation TROPICS orbits Earth at an altitude of about 342 miles (550 kilometers) with an inclination of about 30 degrees. All four units in the constellation had to be deployed within a 60-day period for it to be effective.
“The ability to advance our understanding of tropical cyclones from space has been limited by the ability to take frequent measurements, particularly from storm-viewing microwave instruments,” said Will McCarty, program scientist for the TROPICS Mission, in a statement in april 10. “Historically, satellites have been too large and expensive to provide observations at a time frequency that is consistent with the time scales on which tropical cyclones can evolve.”
McCarty added that the cube era has allowed for smaller, less expensive satellites, allowing for the design of a constellation that optimizes the scientific utility of the mission and facilitates low-cost launches.
“These factors enable TROPICS to provide a new understanding of tropical cyclones by reducing the time in which a given storm is revisited by satellites,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:15 PM ET on May 24 with the new target launch time of 3:30 PM EDT on May 25, then again at 1:00 AM ET on May 26 with release news successful and satellite deployment.