Astra is counting down to the first of three launches this summer to deploy a fleet of six NASA hurricane research small satellites. The Astra small launcher is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral with the first TROPICS nano-satellites in two hours that opens at 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT), weather permitting.
The official launch weather forecast from the US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron predicts a 60% chance of unfavorable conditions for takeoff when the two-hour window opens Sunday. By the end of the window, the probability of bad weather rises to 90%.
Astra will launch the mission from Space Launch Complex 46, a commercial launch facility operated by Space Florida near the east end of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The Sunday-flying rocket, called the Rocket 3.3 or LV0010, is the smallest orbital-class launcher currently in service worldwide. It is about 43 feet (13.1 meters) tall and weighs nearly as much as a small business jet when fully refueled.
Each of the two TROPICS satellites is about the size of a loaf of bread or a shoebox. It’s jammed with the miniature sensor technology she once needed to fly on a satellite bigger than a refrigerator.
Microwave radiometers on each of the TROPICS satellites will collect image data, temperature and humidity over tropical cyclones. With a fleet of satellites, the TROPICS mission will be able to monitor rapid changes in hurricanes with a rhythm at least once an hour.
“These are important variables because they can be related to the intensity of the storm, and even the potential for it to intensify in the future,” said William Blackwell, the principal investigator for the Tropics mission from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. So we’re trying to do those measurements with a relatively high revisit. This is really the main new feature offered by the TROPICS constellation, Storms Revisited.
“We will have six satellites in orbit, one satellite will make a nice picture of the storm, and then the next satellite will orbit about an hour behind it,” Blackwill said. “So we’ll get, roughly 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 measurements of rapidly updated images, we hope this will help us understand the storm better, and ultimately lead to better forecasting. path and intensity of the hurricane.
TROPICS stands for time-resolved observations of precipitation structure and storm intensity with an array of small satellites. The total cost of the mission is about $32 million, according to NASA.
Each TROPICS satellite, assembled by Blue Canyon Technologies in Colorado, weighs about 11.8 pounds (5.3 kg).
Astra will aim to launch two TROPICS satellites into an orbit approximately 357 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth, with a 29.75 degree tilt to the equator. Low Slope Orbiter will focus orbital observations on tropical cyclone development hotspots.
Founded in 2016, Astra aims to launch eventual daily missions to carry small satellites into orbit for a range of customers, including the US military, commercial companies and NASA. The company succeeded in reaching orbit in two of six attempts.
Astra’s most recent flight in March marked the first time the company has put working satellites into orbit, after taking off from Kodiak Island, Alaska. The previous Astra launch in February, which left Cape Canaveral, failed to put a payload of NASA-sponsored CubeSats into orbit.
NASA officials are aware of the danger of satellites flying on a new, relatively unproven launcher. TROPICS is part of NASA’s Earth Venture Program, a series of cost-effective missions designed for Earth science research. NASA is assuming more risks for the Venture missions, and the agency says only four of the six TROPICS satellites, or two of the three Astra satellites launched, need to be operational.
Astra’s first launch with two TROPICS satellites will begin igniting the five Rocket 3.3 kerosene engines on platform 46. The Delphin engines will push the launcher away from the platform at 32,500 pounds of thrust, lowering the missile’s range to the east-northeast of Cape Canaveral.
The engine cut-off in the first stage is expected three minutes after takeoff, followed by separation of the missile’s payload cover, which covers the upper stage and TROPICS payloads while climbing through the atmosphere. Then, the rocket’s boost stage will blast off into the Atlantic, allowing the upper stage to ignite its small 740-pound thrust for a five-minute burn to accelerate to orbital speed.
The deployment of the TROPICS satellites is scheduled at T+ plus 8 minutes and 40 seconds, according to the mission schedule published by Astra.
Satellites will fire up solar panels to start generating electricity, and ground teams will run the Tropix spacecraft through tests and checks.
Tropics’ second and third satellite launches – currently planned for late June and mid-July – are intended to deploy the next four satellites in precise orbital planes, giving the constellation the appropriate spacing to enable regular cyclone overflights.
If the three TROPICS launches on Earth go off as scheduled, the satellites should be assembling by August, just in time for Atlantic hurricane season, according to Will McCarty, a NASA program scientist for the mission. The mission is designed for at least one year of scientific observations.
Several CubeSats blast off into space on rideshare launches, allowing operators to take advantage of lower costs by bundling their payloads onto one large rocket. But the TROPICS satellites need dedicated launches to reach their precise orbital destinations.
“We want space away from the spacecraft as much as we can, and we want to keep it above the tropical cyclone belt,” Blackwill said. “This general configuration allows us to do that, but it requires three separate custom launchers.”
Astra outperformed bids for SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit and Momentus, in large part due to their low-cost proposal, according to NASA. NASA is paying Astra nearly $8 million for the entire three launch campaign.
Rocket: Missile Astra 3.3 (LV0010)
Payload: TROPICS-1 (two satellites)
launch site: SLC-46, Cape Canaveral Space Station, Florida
Lunch date: June 12 2022
launch window: 12:00-2:00 PM EST (1600-1800 GMT)
weather forecast: 60% to 90% chance of violating weather restrictions
Recovery from reinforcement: no one
AZIMUTH LAUNCH: East and Northeast
target orbit: 357 miles (550 kilometers), 29.75 degrees miles
- T+00:00: take off
- T+00: 06: Start the show
- T+01: 10: maximum air pressure (Max-Q)
- T+03:00: 1st stage main engine cut-off (MECO)
- T+03:05: Payload disposal
- T+03:10: Phase separation
- T+03:15: Ignition the engine in the second stage
- T+08:30: Second stage engine cut-off (SECO)
- T+08:40: Publishing TROPICS
- The seventh orbital launch attempt by Astra
- Fifth launch of Astra’s Rocket 3.3 formation
- Astra’s second launch from Florida
- Fifth orbital launch attempt from platform 46
- Third Astra launch in 2022
- The 24th orbital launch from Cape Canaveral in 2022
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