Astra is counting down to the first of three launches this summer to deploy a fleet of six small NASA hurricane research satellites. Astra’s small launcher is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral with the first two TROPICS nanosatellites during a two-hour opening window at 12 pm EDT (1600 GMT), weather permitting.
The official launch weather forecast from the US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicts a 50% chance of unfavorable conditions for liftoff at the opening of the two-hour window on Sunday. At the end of the window, the chance of bad weather increases to 80%.
Astra will launch the mission from Space Launch Complex 46, a commercial launch facility operated by Space Florida near the eastern end of the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The rocket flying Sunday, called Rocket 3.3 or LV0010, is the smallest orbital-class launcher currently in service worldwide. It stands approximately 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall and weighs as much as a small commercial airliner when full of fuel.
The two TROPICS satellites are each about the size of a loaf of bread or a shoebox. They are packed with miniaturized sensor technology that once needed to be flown on a satellite larger than a refrigerator.
Microwave radiometers on each of the TROPICS satellites will collect imaging, temperature and humidity data on tropical cyclones. With a fleet of satellites, the TROPICS mission will be able to monitor rapid changes in cyclones at a rate of at least once an hour.
“Those are important variables because they can be related to the intensity of the storm and even the potential for future intensification,” said William Blackwell, principal investigator for the TROPICS mission at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. “So we’re trying to make those measurements with a relatively high return visit. That’s really the key new feature that the TROPICS constellation offers, it’s an improved review of storms.
“We’ll have six satellites in orbit, and one satellite will work to get a good picture of the storm, and then the next satellite will orbit close to it an hour late,” Blackwell said. “So we’ll get, roughly every hour, a new image of the storm, and that’s a factor of five to eight better than what we have today. With these new rapidly updated imagery measurements, we hope that will help us better understand the storm and ultimately lead to a better forecast of the hurricane’s track and intensity.”
TROPICS stands for Temporal Resolution Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Smallsats constellation. The mission has a total cost of about $32 million, according to NASA.
Each TROPICS satellite, assembled by Blue Canyon Technologies in Colorado, weighs about 11.8 pounds (5.3 kilograms).
Astra will aim to launch the two TROPICS satellites into an orbit about 357 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth, tilted 29.75 degrees from the equator. The low-inclination orbit will focus TROPICS observations on hotspots for tropical cyclone development.
Founded in 2016, Astra aims to eventually launch daily missions to launch small satellites into orbit for a variety of clients, including the US military, commercial companies and NASA. The carrier has successfully reached orbit in two of six attempts.
Astra’s most recent flight in March marked the first time the company had put working satellites into orbit, following a liftoff from Kodiak Island, Alaska. Astra’s previous launch in February, from Cape Canaveral, failed to deliver a payload of NASA-sponsored CubeSats into orbit.
NASA officials are aware of the risk of flying satellites in a relatively untested new launcher. TROPICS is part of NASA’s Earth Venture program, a series of cost-constrained missions designed for Earth science research. NASA takes more risks for Venture-class missions, with the agency saying only four of the six TROPICS satellites, or two of the three Astra launches, need to work.
Astra’s first launch with two TROPICS satellites will begin with the firing of Rocket 3.3’s five kerosene-fueled engines on pad 46. The Delphin engines will propel the launcher off the pad with 32,500 pounds of thrust, propelling the rocket eastward. . northeast of Cape Canaveral.
The first-stage engine is expected to shut down three minutes after liftoff, followed by separation of the rocket’s payload shroud, which covers TROPICS’ upper stage and payloads during ascent through the atmosphere. The rocket’s booster stage will then launch to drop into the Atlantic, allowing the upper stage to ignite its small 740-pound thrust for five minutes to accelerate to orbital speed.
The deployment of the TROPICS satellites is scheduled at T+plus 8 minutes, 40 seconds, according to a mission schedule published by Astra.
The satellites will deploy solar panels to begin generating electricity, and ground crews will run the TROPICS spacecraft through tests and checkouts.
The second and third launches of TROPICS, currently planned for late June and mid-July, will aim to deploy the next four satellites in precise orbital planes, giving the constellation adequate space to allow for regular cyclone flybys.
If all three TROPICS launches take off as scheduled, all satellites should be collecting by August, just in time for the peak of Atlantic hurricane season, according to Will McCarty, NASA’s program scientist for the mission. The mission is designed for at least a year of scientific observations.
Many CubeSats travel into space on shared launches, allowing operators to take advantage of lower costs by bundling their payloads onto a single large rocket. But the TROPICS satellites need dedicated launches to reach their precise orbital destinations.
“We want to space the spacecraft out as much as we can and we want to keep it above the tropical cyclone belt,” Blackwell said. “This general setup allows us to do that, but it requires three separate dedicated launchers.”
Astra beat out bids from SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Momentus, largely due to its lower-cost proposition, according to NASA. NASA is paying Astra nearly $8 million for the entire three-launch campaign.
ROCKET: Astra Rocket 3.3 (LV0010)
USEFUL LOAD: TROPICS-1 (two satellites)
LAUNCH SITE: SLC-46, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida
RELEASE DATE: June 12, 2022
START WINDOW: 12:00-14:00 EDT (1600-1800 GMT)
WEATHER FORECAST: 50% to 80% chance to violate weather restrictions
BOOSTER RECOVERY: None
LAUNCH AZIMUTH: East-northeast
TARGET ORBIT: 357 miles (550 kilometers), 29.75 degrees incline
- T+00:00: Takeoff
- T+00:06: Start launch
- T+01:10: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
- T+03:00: First stage main engine cut-off (MECO)
- T+03:05: Removal of payload fairing
- T+03:10: Separation of stages
- T+03:15: Second stage engine ignition
- T+08:30: Second stage engine cut-off (DRY)
- T+08:40: TROPICS Deployment
- Astra’s seventh orbital launch attempt
- 5th release of the Astra Rocket 3.3 configuration
- Launch of the second Astra from Florida
- Fifth orbital launch attempt from pad 46
- 3rd Astra launch of 2022
- Orbital launch 24 based at Cape Canaveral in 2022
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