NASA’s hurricane-tracking satellites finally make it to orbit after Space Coast failure

·3 min read

A NASA satellite constellation called TROPICS that should give scientists better hurricane information is back on track after a successful liftoff from New Zealand nearly a year after its first two satellites were lost during a Space Coast launch failure.

Astra Space suffered a problem with their Rocket 3.3 during a launch from Cape Canaveral last summer, so NASA pivoted to Rocket Lab that decided to line up two launches this May to try to put up the remaining four satellites in the project.

NASA’s Launch Service Program confirmed Monday it had made contact with the first two that flew up on the Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket from its Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. at 9 p.m. Sunday EDT on a mission it called “Rocket Like a Hurricane.”

TROPICS stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats.

Despite losing two of six planned satellites, teams expect the remaining four can help track existing storms coming in the Atlantic hurricane season this year. Their orbit will allow them to pass over any given storm about once an hour. Existing satellites can only perform this task about once every six hours.

“These are about the size of a loaf of bread, 10 pounds, to make measurements of tropical cyclones from space and we’ll be getting data that we’ve never had before,” said Dr. William Blackwell with MIT Lincoln Laboratory, the principal investigator of the TROPICS mission.

The satellites will look at the microwave wavelength within the inner structures of the systems as they form and intensify.

“We hope to improve our understanding of the basic processes that drive the storms and ultimately improve our ability to forecast track and intensity,” Blackwell said.

They add to the arsenal of Earth-observation satellites already in place to help track tropical systems said Ben Kim, a TROPICS program executive with NASA’s Earth Science Division.

“These observations will complement the existing weather satellites, and ultimately then can be tied to the broader understanding of the entire Earth system,” he said. “In the longer term, we hope to gain a better comprehension of the basic processes and environments that affect tropical cyclones structure, size and intensity.”

Groups like the National Hurricane Center and the Joint Typhoon Warning Center will be able to use imagery beginning this year, but the long-term goal is to allow trackers better storm modeling and predictions that could help mitigate deadly results such as those seen during Florida’s Hurricane Ian landfall on Southwest Florida.

“In 2022, we only had three hurricanes that hit the United States, but that included hurricanes, which caused more than $100 billion in damages, and more than 100 fatalities,” Kim said. “The threat to our friends and neighbors is real and repeats every year.”

The array of information could allow meteorologists to give more accurate advance forecasts, enable federal warnings as well as improve disaster management, Kim said.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck thanks NASA for entrusting the Long Beach, California-based company to finish the job Astra Space had originally been contracted for.

“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,” Beck said.

The company plans to fly up the remaining two TROPICS satellites on a mission called “Coming to a Storm Near You” in two weeks, also from its Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The company also began launched from Virginia this year, and to date has flown 36 successful orbital missions taking up a total of 161 satellites since 2018.