Electron lifting off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, carrying the last two TROPICS satellites. Credits: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab Launched a New TROPICS Mission for NASA

On May 25 Rocket Lab launched the last two satellites of the TROPICS constellation, a NASA project to better understand the formation and evolution of storms

The Rocket Lab “Coming To A Storm Near You” mission was launched to finally complete NASA’s TROPICS constellation. The Electron rocket lifted off from Launch Complex 1B (LC-1B) in New Zealand on May 25, 2023 at 11:69 p.m. EST (May 26, at 04:46 UTC).

2 minutes after liftoff the first stage separated and about half an hour later the two TROPICS-3 and TROPICS-5 CubeSats were deployed into a 550 km circular orbit with a 32-degrees inclination.

With yesterday’s mission Rocket Lab delivered the last two TROPICS cubesats, the first two were launched under the “Rocket Like A Hurricane” mission on May 8, 2023.

“Electron was developed for exactly these kinds of missions – to deploy spacecraft reliably and on rapid timelines to precise and bespoke orbits, so we’re proud to have delivered that for NASA across both TROPICS launches and meet the deadline for getting TROPICS to orbit in time for the 2023 storm season.”

Peter Beck, Founder and CEO of Rocket Lab


What is the TROPICS mission?

TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observation of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats), is a NASA mission with the aim of studying tropical cyclones and improving the forecast of hurricanes and typhoons.

TROPICS consist of four 3U size CubeSats equipped with high-performance microwave radiometers that will scan the storm’s inner structure beneath the cloud tops. The satellites are positioned in two different LEO planes, to provide data updates of a specific meteorological situation about once an hour.

The radiometers will scan across the satellite track at 30 RPM (Revolution Per Minute) providing temperature profiles with 7 channels near the oxygen absorption line (118.75 GHz), water vapor profiles using 3 channels near the water vapor absorption line (183 GHz), precipitation measurements near 90 GHz and cloud ice measurements at 205 GHz.

Infographic of a TROPICS constellation. Credits: Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory Rocket Lab
Infographic of a TROPICS constellation. Credits: Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory

Initially, the mission was supposed to use 12 CubeSats, then reduced to six plus a pathfinder spacecraft launched during SpaceX’s Transporter-2 mission. Unfortunately, the first two satellites were lost during the failed launch of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 in June 2022. After that NASA decided to assign to Rocket Lab the launch of the remaining four satellites.


More about Electron

Electron is a small-lift launch vehicle designed and built by the American company Rocket Lab to deliver small payloads at multiple planes and inclinations. Electron is a 3D-printed two-stage rocket, with the option to add a Kick Stage or a Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft.

The first stage is powered by 9 sea-level Rutherford engines that provide 190 kN of thrust at liftoff. The second stage is instead powered by a single Vacuum Rutherford. Rutherford is the first RP-1/LOx rocket engine to use electric motors and lithium batteries to power its fuel pumps that feed the propellants into the combustion chamber.

9 Rutherford engines lifting Electron during "Coming To A Storm Near You" mission. Credits: Rocket Lab
9 Rutherford engines lifting Electron during “Coming To A Storm Near You” mission. Credits: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab is launching Electron from two Launch Complexes, one in New Zealand (LC-1) and one in the USA at Wallops Island (LC.2).


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Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Francesco Sebastiano Moro

Aerospace engineering student at University of Padua, passionate of space and aerospace sector.

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