Astra is counting down to the first of three launches this summer to deploy a fleet of six small NASA hurricane research satellites. Liftoff of Astra’s small launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral with the first two TROPICS nanosatellites is scheduled during a two-hour window opening at 12 p.m. EDT (4 p.m. GMT), weather permitting.
The official launch weather forecast for the US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicts a 60% chance of unfavorable conditions for liftoff when the two-hour window opens on Sunday. At the end of the window, the probability of bad weather increases to 90%.
Astra will launch the mission from Space Launch Complex 46, a commercial launch facility operated by Space Florida near the eastern tip of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The rocket flying on Sunday, called Rocket 3.3 or LV0010, is the smallest orbital-class launcher currently in service in the world. It is about 13.1 meters (43 feet) tall and weighs about as much as a small business jet when fully fueled.
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 had to fly on a satellite larger than a refrigerator.
Microwave radiometers installed on each of the TROPICS satellites will collect imagery, temperature and humidity data on tropical cyclones. Equipped with a fleet of satellites, the TROPICS mission will be able to follow the rapid evolution of cyclones at a rate of at least once per hour.
“These 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 of the TROPICS mission at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. “So we try to do these measurements with a relatively high revisit. That’s really the key new feature that the TROPICS constellation provides, it’s a better storm revisit.
“We’ll have six satellites in orbit, and one satellite will work to get a nice picture of the storm, and then the next satellite will orbit closely behind it about an hour late,” Blackwell said. “So we’ll have, about every hour, a new image of the storm, and that’s about five to eight times better than what we’re getting today. With these new, rapidly updated image measurements, we hope that it will help us better understand the storm and ultimately better predict the hurricane’s track and intensity.
TROPICS stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats. The mission has a total cost of around $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 approximately 357 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of 29.75 degrees to the equator. The low-inclination orbit will focus TROPICS observations on tropical cyclone development hotspots.
Founded in 2016, Astra ultimately aims to launch daily missions to carry small satellites into orbit for a range of customers, including the US military, commercial companies and NASA. The company managed to reach orbit in two of the six trials.
Astra’s most recent flight in March marked the first time the company has placed functioning satellites into orbit, following liftoff from Kodiak Island, Alaska. Astra’s previous launch in February, which left Cape Canaveral, failed to place a payload of NASA-sponsored CubeSats into orbit.
NASA officials are aware of the risk of flying satellites on a relatively untested new launch vehicle. TROPICS is part of NASA’s Earth Venture program, a series of low-cost missions designed for Earth science research. NASA assumes more risk for Venture-class missions, and the agency says only four of six TROPICS satellites, or two of three Astra launches, need operate.
Astra’s first launch with two TROPICS satellites will begin with the ignition of Rocket 3.3’s five kerosene-fueled engines at pad 46. Delphin engines will propel the launch vehicle off the pad with 32,500 pounds of thrust, propelling the rocket upward east- northeast of Cape Canaveral.
Shutdown of the first-stage engine is scheduled for three minutes after liftoff, followed by separation of the rocket payload fairing, which covers the upper stage and TROPICS payloads during climb through the atmosphere. Then the rocket’s booster stage will jettison to fall into the Atlantic, allowing the upper stage to ignite its small 740-pound thrust during a five-minute burn to accelerate to orbital speed.
The deployment of the TROPICS satellites is scheduled for T+ plus 8 minutes, 40 seconds, according to a mission schedule published by Astra.
Satellites will deploy solar panels to begin generating electricity, and ground crews will operate the TROPICS spacecraft through testing and verification.
The second and third TROPICS launches – currently scheduled for late June and mid-July – will aim to deploy the next four satellites into precise orbital planes, giving the constellation the proper spacing to allow regular cyclone flybys.
If all three TROPICS launches lift off as planned, the satellites should all be collected by August, just in time for the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, according to Will McCarty, NASA program scientist for the mission. The mission is designed for at least one year of scientific observations.
Many CubeSats travel to space in carpool launches, allowing operators to take advantage of reduced costs by consolidating their payloads onto a single large rocket. But TROPICS satellites need dedicated launches to reach their precise orbital destinations.
“We want to space out spacecraft as much as possible and keep them above the tropical cyclone belt,” Blackwell said. “This global 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 their 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)
PAYLOAD: TROPICS-1 (two satellites)
LAUNCH SITE: SLC-46, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida
RELEASE DATE: June 12, 2022
LAUNCH WINDOW: 12:00-2:00 p.m. EDT (4:00-6:00 p.m. GMT)
WEATHER FORECAST: 50% to 80% chance of violating weather constraints
BOOSTER RECOVERY: None
LAUNCH AZIMUTH: East-northeast
TARGET ORBIT: 357 miles (550 kilometers), 29.75 degree incline
- T+00:00: Takeoff
- T+00:06: Start presentation
- T+01:10: Maximum air pressure (Max-Q)
- T+03:00: First stage main engine shutdown (MECO)
- T+03:05: Release of the payload fairing
- T+03:10: Floor separation
- T+03:15: Second stage engine ignition
- T+08:30: Second stage engine shutdown (SECO)
- T+08:40: TROPICS deployment
- 7th orbital launch attempt by Astra
- 5th launch of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 configuration
- 2nd Astra launch from Florida
- 5th orbital launch attempt from pad 46
- 3rd Astra launch of 2022
- 24th orbital launch based at Cape Canaveral in 2022
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