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Rocket Lab to launch NASA’s cyclone-tracking satellite constellation from New Zealand

Rocket Lab USA, Inc., a leading launch and space systems company, today announced it will launch NASA’s TROPICS constellation across two dedicated Electron missions lifting off from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand next month.

The TROPICS constellation (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Small Sats) will monitor the formation and evolution of tropical cyclones, including hurricanes, and will provide rapidly updating observations of storm intensity. This data will help scientists better understand the processes that effect these high-impact storms, ultimately leading to improved modelling and prediction. The two missions are expected to launch within approximately two weeks of each other in May 2023. The first launch, named ‘Rocket Like a Hurricane,’ is expected to launch as soon as May 1 NZST (30 April EDT) and the second mission, named ‘Coming to a Storm Near You,’ is expected to follow around May 16 NZST (May 15 EDT).

The constellation, which is part of NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder Program, consists of four CubeSats that require launch to a specific orbit at an altitude of 550 kilometers and inclination of about 30 degrees. All four satellites need to be deployed into their operational orbit within a 60-day period, making Electron the ideal launch vehicle as it enables dedicated launch to unique orbits on highly responsive timelines. The two missions were initially scheduled to lift-off from Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport within NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia but will now take place at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand to support a Q2 launch window that will see the satellites reach orbit in time for the North American 2023 hurricane season.

“The need for improved climate and weather data from space is acute and growing. Hurricanes and tropical storms have a devastating effect on lives and livelihoods, so we’re immensely proud to be entrusted by NASA to launch the TROPICS missions which will enable scientists and researchers to accurately predict storm strength and give people time to evacuate and make plans,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO, Peter Beck. “With the 2023 hurricane season fast approaching, time is of the essence for these missions. Because we operate three launch pads across two countries, we can constantly assess the launch manifest and adapt launch schedules and locations based on customer and mission requirements.”

“The ability to advance our understanding of tropical cyclones from space has been limited by the ability to take frequent measurements, particularly from microwave instruments that see into the storms,” says Will McCarty, Program Scientist for the TROPICS Mission. “Historically, satellites have been too large and expensive to provide observations at a time-frequency that is consistent with the timescales at which tropical cyclones can evolve. The CubeSat era has allowed for smaller, less expensive satellites. With modern small satellite design, we designed a constellation that optimizes the scientific utility of the mission in a way that we can launch in a cost-effective manner. These factors enable TROPICS to provide a new understanding of tropical cyclones by decreasing the time by which a given storm is revisited by the satellites.”

Rocket Lab was selected to launch the TROPICS missions as part of NASA’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract.