Rocket Lab will assess the weather as it evolves over the weekend and confirm a new target date soon.
This launch is the first of two planned launches, each sending a pair of shoebox-sized satellites, called CubeSats, to low Earth orbit. TROPICS will provide data on temperature, precipitation, water vapor, and clouds by measuring microwave frequencies, providing insight into storm formation and intensification. Originally, Rocket Lab was targeting 9 p.m. EDT, Sunday, April 30 (1 p.m. New Zealand Standard Time, Monday, May 1) for the launch.
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A NASA constellation of four storm tracking CubeSats are getting a new launch location as they prepare to study tropical cyclones beginning in the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season. NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats (TROPICS) will observe the atmosphere to increase our understanding of hurricanes, typhoons, and other intense weather.
Rocket Lab has announced the mission now will be sent into orbit on two Electron rockets – each carrying two TROPICS CubeSats – from Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand in May to maintain the target launch window in time for this year’s hurricane season.
Each launch, traveling to separate orbital planes, will place a pair of the small satellites in orbit to increase the frequency in which tropical cyclones are measured from space. The TROPICS constellation enables researchers to monitor the evolution of tropical cyclones with a frequency of about once per hour as compared to currently only once every 6 hours. Each TROPICS satellite is an identical 3U (1U, or unit = 10cm x 10cm x 10cm) CubeSat that is about the size of a loaf of bread and weighs about 12 pounds.
The TROPICS team is led by Dr. William Blackwell at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, and includes researchers from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several universities and commercial partners. NASA awarded the launch services to Rocket Lab in November 2022, as part of the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract.
A total of 21 universities applied for this year’s UNP Mission Concepts-1 Summer Series. Proposals were reviewed by a mix of NASA, Air Force, and contractor personnel who selected universities based on the educational impact, university program impact/development, minority outreach/support, and NASA/Department of Defense relevance. This year’s selections are:
Florida Institute of Technology – Melbourne, Florida
University of the Virgin Islands – U.S. Virgin Islands
University of South Florida – Tampa, Florida
University of New Mexico – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Missouri University of Science and Technology – Rolla, Missouri
New Mexico State University – Las Cruces, New Mexico
Columbia University – New York City, New York
Tarleton State University – Stephenville, Texas
Of this year’s awardees, one is a historically Black university, marking the first time a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) has won a UNP competition and the second time in 12 years a HBCU has won a CSLI competition. Two other awardees are Hispanic serving institutions. The teams will meet at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a two-day kickoff meeting in May, followed by a month-long stay at the Air Force’s UNP facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico in June, where four students will be hired as interns with the Space Dynamics Laboratory.
After spending one month in New Mexico, they will return to their university for the following month where throughout the summer they and other participating students will take part in educational workshops and exercises. The students will be seated near SmallSats experts for continuous feedback and guidance to help improve university proposals and increase those teams’ potential of being selected to fly to space as part of NASA’s CSLI and the U.S. Air Force UNP. Both CSLI and UNP will make their selections for future flights in 2024.
Final presentations will take place in Albuquerque and although not required, participants are encouraged to also attend the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah. The program provides funding for all travel – including kickoff, final event, and in-person reviews – allowing faculty and students to formulate teams without straining university resources.
CSLI is one of many ways NASA is attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines. This strengthens NASA’s and the nation’s future workforce. Further, the initiative promotes and develops innovative technology partnerships among NASA, U.S. industry, and other sectors for the benefit of agency programs and projects.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on April 4 to provide the latest target launch date information.
NASA is announcing two small CubeSats missions to launch on a commercial dedicated rideshare flight as part of the agency’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) initiative, which helps advance scientific and human exploration, as well as reduce the cost of new space missions, and expand access to space.
The CubeSat missions, which will study parts of Earth’s atmosphere and its radiation belt dynamics, are targeted for launch no earlier than April 2023 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
The Colorado Inner Radiation Belt Experiment (CIRBE) and Low-Latitude Ionosphere/Thermosphere Enhancements in Density (LLITED) are ELaNa missions 47 and 40, respectively.
CIRBE is a 3U CubeSat (1U, or unit = 10cm x 10cm x 10cm) from the University of Colorado Boulder, designed to provide state-of-the-art measurements within Earth’s radiation belt in a highly inclined low-Earth orbit. CIRBE aims for a better understanding of radiation belt dynamics, consequently improving the forecast capability of the energetic particles known to pose a threat to orbiting satellites as well as astronauts during spacewalks.
“Despite being the first scientific discovery of the space age, there are still many unsolved puzzles regarding the dynamics of these energetic particles,” said Dr. Xinlin Li, CIRBE principal investigator and professor at the university’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
CIRBE’s sole instrument, Relativistic Electron Proton Telescope integrated little experiment-2 (REPTile-2), is an advanced version of an instrument previously in space from 2012 to 2014. The original REPTile could detect three energy channels, whereas REPTile-2 can distinguish 50 distinct channels, providing far greater measurement of elusive high energy particles with potential to damage satellites and penetrate spacesuits. REPTile-2 will measure the energies of incident electrons and protons, with its data downlinked to the ground via S-band radio. At mission’s end, the spacecraft’s orbit will begin degrading, eventually re-entering the atmosphere and burning up.
NASA’s LLITED consists of two 1.5U CubeSats developed by The Aerospace Corporation, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, and the University of New Hampshire (UNH). LLITED will study two late-day features of Earth’s atmosphere between 217 to 310 miles, with the aim of gaining a greater understanding of the interactions between the neutral and electrically charged parts of the atmosphere, consequently improving upper-atmosphere modeling capabilities and predictions for orbital proximity and re-entry.
“For the first time, we will be able to make simultaneous and co-located measurements of two phenomena in lower thermosphere/ionosphere – Equatorial Ionization Anomaly (EIA) and Equatorial Temperature Wind Anomaly (ETWA) – from a CubeSat platform,” said Dr. Rebecca Bishop, principal investigator for LLITED. “The two LLITED CubeSats will be able to observe changes in time and space of the two features.”
Both LLITED CubeSats carry three science instruments – a GPS radio-occultation sensor provided by Aerospace, an ionization gauge from UNH, and a planar ion probe provided by Embry-Riddle. Working together, the instruments will show how these atmospheric regions of enhanced density form, evolve, and then interact with each other after sunset.
“Because CubeSats can weigh 100 times less than larger satellites, missions such as LLITED demonstrate the potential of these small and cost-effective spacecraft to perform cutting-edge, comprehensive science experiments that previously were not feasible within traditional program resources,” said Bishop.
NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) supporting the agency’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida provides launch opportunities for small satellite payloads built by U.S. universities, high schools, NASA Centers, and non-profit organizations. To date, NASA has selected more than 225 CubeSat missions, representing participants from 42 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and over 115 unique organizations.