TROPICS CubeSats Expected to Have Deployed

NASA’s TROPICS CubeSats are expected to have deployed from the Rocket Lab’s Electron kick stage. The two CubeSats will reach low-Earth orbit to begin their mission.

Each of the CubeSats was designed to last approximately two years, but analysis, lifetime testing of key parts, and on-orbit experiences with similar hardware could help the satellites surpass their design lifetime.

Electron’s Second Stage Separates

The second stage of Rocket Lab’s Electron has cut off and separated from the payload kick stage. Soon, the kick stage engine will ignite and burn for about three minutes before it cuts off.

Electron Performs Battery Hot Swap

The Electron rocket has successfully completed the battery hot swap, switching power between batteries. The next milestone is second stage separation in about three minutes.

Liftoff For Rocket Like a Hurricane!

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket lifts off from New Zealand with two TROPICS Cubesats
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 1 at Māhia, New Zealand at 9:00 p.m., carrying two TROPICS CubeSats for NASA. Credit: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts off from Launch Complex 1 at Māhia, New Zealand at 9:00 p.m., carrying two TROPICS CubeSats for NASA.

A series of milestones will occur within several minutes after launch. The rocket will reach MaxQ, which is the speed at which the vehicle reaches its maximum dynamic pressure. Electron’s first stage main engines will cut off, followed by separation from the second stage. The payload fairing surrounding TROPICS will jettison.

Rocket Lab’s Electron Rocket Prepares for Launch

TROPICS will launch aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, named Rocket Like A Hurricane, from Launch Complex 1 at Māhia, New Zealand. The Electron is an expendable, vertically launched, two-stage rocket that uses liquid oxygen and kerosene as propellants. Propellant loading has already begun for today’s launch and the rocket should launch in about five minutes.

Each Electron rocket is around 60 feet (18 m) tall, with an exterior made of a carbon fiber composite, that can carry payloads weighing up to about 700 pounds (320 kilograms). Each Electron rocket uses nine Rutherford sea-level engines on its first stage, and a single Rutherford vacuum engine on its second stage. These engines use an electric turbopump powered by batteries to deliver propellants/fuel to the engines. A payload fairing protects the spacecraft or satellite as the rocket climbs through the atmosphere. An extra stage, called a kick stage, powered by a single Curie engine, will circularize the orbits of the small satellites. Previous NASA missions that launched on an Electron rocket are the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), as well as two Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNA) missions ELaNa 19 and 32.

Some of the launch team members are located within Rocket Lab’s private range control facilities at Launch Complex 1, located on the north Island of New Zealand. The bulk of the Electron operators, as well as NASA’s Launch Services Program team and spacecraft customer team will be on console at the Auckland Production Complex.

Go For Launch!

The team has just called out Go for Launch, and the Electron rocket should blast off in about 10 minutes.

Mission Facts About NASA’s TROPICS

Each TROPICS satellite is identical – a 3U CubeSat about the size of a loaf of bread that weighs about 12 pounds.

The TROPICS CubeSat payload is a spinning microwave radiometer with highly integrated, compact microwave receiver electronics.

TROPICS satellites measure microwave frequencies ranging from about 90 to 205 gigahertz, which can monitor the atmospheric emissions made by water vapor, oxygen, and clouds in the atmosphere.

TROPICS target altitude is approximately 342 miles (550 km), the pairs of CubeSats will have two slightly different low-Earth orbits, each at an angle about 30 degrees above the equator.

The TROPICS Pathfinder satellite, a proof-of-concept CubeSat that launched in June of 2021, has captured images of several tropical cyclones, such as Hurricane Ida over the United States, Cyclone Batsirai over Madagascar, and Super Typhoon Mindulle over eastern Japan. The pathfinder satellite also has provided the TROPICS research team an opportunity to fine tune the satellites’ software and operational procedures before the constellation launches. In addition, the pathfinder already has been calibrated and will serve as a calibration reference for the rest of the TROPICS constellation satellites. The TROPICS pathfinder helps the TROPICS CubeSats start producing useful data quickly.

TROPICS is one of NASA’s Earth venture-instrument missions. They are science-driven, competitively selected, low-cost endeavors that provide 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 TROPICS team is led by Principal Investigator Dr. William Blackwell at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington and includes researchers from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several universities and commercial partners.

NASA selected Rocket Lab to provide the launch service for the TROPICS mission as part of the agency’s VADR (Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare) launch services contract in November 2022. NASA’s Launch Services Program at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida manages the launch service.

Rocket Lab TROPICS Timeline of Events for Today’s Launch

A pair of NASA’s TROPICS CubeSats are scheduled to launch today on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand. A two-hour window opens at 9 p.m. EDT.

Here’s a look at some of today’s upcoming milestones. All times are approximate:

T-2:00 Launch autosequence begins
T-00:02 Rutherford engines ignite
T-00 Liftoff
L-1:00 Vehicle supersonic
L-1:11 Max Q
L-2:29 MECO on Electron’s first stage
L-2:33 Stage 1 separation from stage 2
L-2:36 Electron’s Stage 2 Rutherford engine ignites
L-3:08 Fairing separation
L-6:52 Battery hot-swap
L-9:27 Second engine cutoff (SECO) on Stage 2
L-9:31 Stage 2 separation from Kick Stage
L-30:06 Kick stage Curie engine ignition
L-32:50 Curie engine cut off
~L-33:00 Payload Deployed

Live Coverage of Today’s Launch Now Airing

Live coverage has begun for the first of two launches of NASA’s TROPICS mission. Rocket Lab is targeting 9 p.m. EDT (1 p.m. Monday, May 8, New Zealand Standard Time) for the launch of Rocket Like A Hurricane, the company’s Electron rocket that will send a pair of CubeSats to low Earth-Orbit.

Watch the broadcast here.