NASA has awarded Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California, one task order to launch two CubeSat Launch Initiative missions as part of the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract.
The CubeSats are targeted to launch no earlier than 2025 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. NASA will specify payloads closer to launch.
Building on NASA’s previous procurement efforts to foster development of a growing U.S. commercial launch market, VADR provides Federal Aviation Administration-licensed commercial launch services for payloads that can tolerate higher risk. By using a lower level of mission assurance, and commercial best practices for launching rockets, these highly flexible contracts help broaden access to space through lower launch costs.
SpaceX is one of 13 companies NASA selected for VADR contracts in 2022. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, manages the VADR contracts.
The final two TROPICS CubeSats successfully deployed from a Rocket Lab Electron rocket after launch. The rocket named Coming To A Storm Near You lifted off at at 11:46 p.m. EDT Thursday, May 25, (3:46 p.m. NZST Friday, May 26th).
The team is now working to seek signal acquisition from this pair of TROPICS CubeSats. NASA will continue to assess data from periodic pass opportunities over ground stations located across the globe. It is not unexpected for CubeSats to take some time to establish communications. We will provide confirmation when signal is acquired.
While the launches are complete, the scientific work on orbit for the constellation is just beginning. So, continue to follow along for blog updates and stay connected with the mission on social media. This concludes our coverage of this launch.
NASA’s TROPICS CubeSats 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.
The second stage of Rocket Lab’s Electron has cut off and separated from the payload fairing’s kick stage. In around 20 minutes, the kick stage engine will ignite and burn for almost four minutes before it cuts off.
NASA’s two TROPICS CubeSats have lifted off atop Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from Launch Complex 1 at Māhia, New Zealand at 11:46 p.m. EDT Thursday, May 25, (3:46 p.m. NZST Friday, May 26th).
A series of milestones will occur within several minutes after launch. The rocket will reach Max-Q – the speed at which the vehicle reaches its maximum dynamic pressure – followed by main engine cutoff of Electron’s first stage and separation from the second stage.
TROPICS will launch aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, on a mission nicknamed Coming To A Storm Near You, from Launch Complex 1 at Māhia, New Zealand. The first mission – Rocket Like A Hurricane – launched on May 8 from New Zealand was Rocket Lab’s 36th Electron launch overall.
The Electron is a 60-foot (18 m) tall, vertically launched, three-stage rocket including a kick stage for payload deployment that uses liquid oxygen and kerosene as propellants.
As an orbital-class small rocket, each Electron can carry payloads weighing up to about 700 pounds (320 kilograms). With an exterior made of a carbon fiber composite, 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 and are the world’s first 3D-printed, electric-pump-fed rocket engine. The TROPICS satellites are protected during launch through the atmosphere by a payload fairing, while an extra stage, called a kick stage, powered by a single Curie engine, will perform a plane change maneuver to position the CubeSats at a 30-degree inclination. Rocket Lab has been working to make the Electron’s first stage reusable, recovering boosters on several previous flights, though no attempt at recovery will be made for today’s launch.
In addition to the recent TROPICS launch, previous NASA missions that launched on an Electron rocket are the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), as well as the Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNA) 19 and 32 missions.
During today’s launch, most of the Electron operators will be on console at the Auckland Production Complex, just outside New Zealand’s most populous city. Remaining launch team members will be within Rocket Lab’s private range control facilities at Launch Complex 1, located around 250 miles southeast of Auckland on North Island’s east coast. NASA’s Launch Services Program team and spacecraft customer team will be on console at Rocket Lab’s Integration and Control Facility (ICF) in Wallops, Virginia.
TROPICS is one of NASA’s Earth venture-instrument missions, which 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.
TROPICS comprises four identical 3U CubeSats, each roughly the size of a loaf of bread and weighing about 12 pounds.
The TROPICS CubeSat payload is a spinning microwave radiometer with highly integrated, compact microwave receiver electronics that measure microwave frequencies ranging from about 90 to 205 gigahertz, enabling monitoring of the atmospheric emissions made by water vapor, oxygen, and clouds in the atmosphere.
The target altitude for TROPICS is approximately 342 miles (550 km), with both pairs of CubeSats having two slightly different low Earth orbits angled 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.
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.
Live coverage has begun for the second of two launches of NASA’s TROPICS mission. Rocket Lab is targeting no earlier than 11:46 p.m. EDT Thursday, May 25, (3:46 p.m. NZST Friday, May 26th) for the launch of Coming To A Storm Near You, the flight of the company’s Electron rocket that will send a pair of CubeSats to low Earth orbit.