Rocket Lab launched two toaster-sized satellites for NASA on Sunday, the first of four “cubsats” designed to provide hourly information on the development of typhoons and hurricanes in an effort to improve forecasting and provide new insights into how tropical storms develop and intensify.
“The threat to our friends and neighbors is real and recurring every year,” said Ben Kim, program manager for NASA’s Earth Sciences Division. The TROPICS mission, he said, “is aimed at improving our scientific understanding by obtaining microwave observations that allow us to see the internal structure of these storms approximately every hour.
“These observations will complement existing meteorological satellites, and may eventually be tied to a broader understanding of the entire Earth system.”
TROPICS, one of NASA’s more confusing acronyms, stands for Temporary Observations of Precipitation Patterns and Storm Intensity Using a Constellation of Small Satellites. The bargain-basement $30 million mission takes advantage of miniaturized electronics and the evolution of cubesats capable of battling big-ticket science.
Cubesats are not designed to replace larger, much more powerful and much more expensive weather satellites. But they offer a low-cost way to complement these “flagship” missions with additional science and much shorter development times
“We use a balanced set of missions that range from really large observatories like Landsat 9 at about 6,000 pounds to the smallest satellites like TROPICS at about 12 pounds,” Kim said.
“Having this mix in our portfolio allows us to maximize the science per taxpayer dollar and therefore do more science than if we were just focusing on the big missions.”
The first two of the six planned Cubesat TROPICS were lost last year when their Astra rocket failed during launch. NASA then moved the four remaining cubesats to the more reliable Electron Rocket Lab to get them into orbit in time for this year’s tropical storm season.
Delayed by about a week due to stormy weather, the first of the two remaining missions took off Sunday at 9:00 PM EDT from the scenic launch pad of the Mahia Rocket Laboratory in New Zealand.
The 59-foot-tall, 3D-printed, 3D-printed Rutherford carbon-composite rocket engines pushed the launch vehicle out of the lower atmosphere before descending to the rocket’s second stage, which launched the craft into its initial nine-plus parking orbit. – half a minute after takeoff.
The third “shock” stage then completed the job, allowing TROPICS 3 and 4 to fly independently about 33 minutes after launch. It was the 36th launch of a Rocket Lab Electron and the 16th consecutive successful flight.
If all goes well, Rocket Lab will launch TROPICS 5 and 6 before the end of the month to complete the four-satellite constellation. All four satellites will operate in 341-mile-high orbits, taking them about 30 degrees either way from the equator, ideal for hourly observations of storms.
William Blackwell, principal investigator of TROPICS at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, said that obtaining microwave observations of growing storms at the fast review rate provided by cubesats is critical to understanding the development and behavior of tropical storms.
“We’ve been making (such observations) for 40 years from space, but what has eluded us is the ability to capture storm dynamics,” he said. “So this new hourly cadence that we’re going to get with the constellation will really push us forward in terms of what the observations can do to explain how things change during the storm.”
The observations, combined with data collected by larger and more powerful weather satellites, are expected to “improve understanding of the underlying processes that drive storms and ultimately improve our ability to predict track and intensity.”