Rocket Lab launches two NASA hurricane-monitoring CubeSats into orbit

NASA's new TROPICS small satellite constellation "has the real potential to save lives," said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck.
Chris Young
Rocket Lab's latest Electron launch.
Rocket Lab's latest Electron launch.

Rocket Lab 

Rocket Lab launched a pair of NASA CubeSats to orbit aboard the company's Electron launch system, almost a year after another rocket failed to send the first of the small satellites into space.

The Electron rocket took off from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 9 p.m. ET on May 7 for the 'Rocket like a Hurricane' mission.

Roughly 35 minutes after launch, the Electron booster deployed the two Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) CubeSats into orbit.

Rocket Lab launches NASA's cyclone satellites

The TROPICS CubeSats were designed to monitor the development of tropical storms. According to a press release, Rocket Lab's Electron booster placed the small satellites into a 550-kilometer orbit at an inclination of 32 degrees.

Two weeks from now, another Electron rocket will launch two more TROPICS CubeSats for NASA. Once operational, the four-satellite system will monitor tropical storm development using a microwave radiometer on each satellite that measures temperature and water vapor profiles.

The system will provide hourly updates that will help monitor hurricane formation as well as other tropical weather systems.

“The TROPICS constellation has the real potential to save lives by providing more timely data about storm intensity and providing advance warning to those in storm paths, so it’s an immense privilege to have deployed these spacecraft to their precise orbits before the upcoming storm season,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. “We’re grateful to the NASA team for entrusting us with such a critical mission and we look forward to completing the constellation with the second Electron launch in the coming days."

Rocket Lab's ambitious plans

TROPICS was originally intended as a six-satellite constellation. NASA initially penned a roughly $8 million contract with rocket firm Astra to send those satellites to orbit. However, it had to return to the drawing board after the first launch in June 2022 failed to reach orbit when Astra's 3.3 rocket's upper stage prematurely ran out of kerosene fuel.

The 'Rocket Like a Hurricane' mission was Rocket Lab's fourth mission for 2023 and the firm's 36th Electron mission overall. The company is also developing a system that allows it to catch rockets out of the sky using helicopters, and it aims to send a private mission to Venus at some point this year.

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