NASA’s remaining hurricane-tracking TROPICS satellites in orbit after successful Rocket Lab launch

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The last two of NASA’s four surviving hurricane-tracking TROPICS satellites made it to orbit after a successful launch and deployment by small-rocket company Rocket Lab on Friday.

Originally planned to be a six-satellite constellation and launched in 2022, the first two satellites were lost when competitor Astra Space suffered issues with the second stage of its now-retired Rocket 3.3 after liftoff from Cape Canaveral last June.

NASA shifted the contract to launch the remaining four TROPICS satellites to Long Beach, California-based Rocket Lab, which opted to use its New Zealand launch facilities for two launches with two satellites each this month in an effort to get them in place ahead of the start of the Atlantic hurricane season.

The first of Rocket Lab’s flights, dubbed “Rocket Like a Hurricane” went well two weeks ago with the followup launch dubbed “Coming to a Storm Near You” lifting off from the Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 3:46 p.m. local time, which was 11:46 p.m. Thursday EDT. Both flew on the company’s small Electron rockets, which have flown 37 times now successfully since 2018, mostly from New Zealand, but as of this year also flying from Virginia.

Rocket Lab confirmed deployment at 12:20 a.m. EDT, with NASA ground-tracking stations acquiring their signals with two hours, according to NASA’s Launch Services Program.

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

Now the plan is for mission managers to deploy the four shoebox-sized satellites to track tropical systems as they form 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.

“As a lifelong Floridian, I know firsthand how critical it is for millions of Americans to have timely and accurate forecasts for hurricanes.” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a press release. “More intense rainfall and increased coastal flooding are devastating livelihoods and taking lives, demonstrating the importance of NASA’s cutting-edge science to help answer questions that nobody else can.”

The 10-pound satellites, which orbit at 341 miles altitude had to be deployed within 60 days of one another at a 30-degree inclination to work properly. They will look at the microwave wavelength within the inner structures of tropical systems as they form and intensify.

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.

“As we move into hurricane season for 2023, TROPICS will be in position to provide unprecedented detail on these storms, helping us better understand how they form, intensify, and move across the ocean,” said Karen St. Germain, who heads up NASA’s Earth Science Division. “We rely on targeted, innovative missions like this to help create a robust Earth science portfolio.”

Dr. William Blackwell with MIT Lincoln Laboratory is the principal investigator of the TROPICS mission, which also has NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others as partners.

“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.