WASHINGTON – Astra Space is preparing to conduct the first of three NASA cubesats launches to monitor tropical storms as early as June 12, awaiting receipt of a launch permit.
The company announced on June 8 that it was ready to launch two observations of weather-resolved precipitation structure and storm intensity with a constellation of small satellites (TROPICS) on its Rocket 3.3 vehicle from Cape Canaveral on June 12. The launch is the first of three under a NASA contract awarded in February 2021 worth $7.95 million.
“We expect a release license on Friday [June 10] to allow us to begin a series of launches for the TROPICS mission leaving Cape Canaveral,” Chris Kemp, Astra’s chief executive, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on June 8. we received the license on Friday.”
The company said on a May 5 earnings call that the three TROPICS releases were next on the manifest and would take place at “a fairly rapid cadence,” according to Kemp. However, he said the company is unlikely to make all three launches in the second quarter.
Speaking at a meeting of the Space Studies Council of the National Academies on June 9, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said the launches would take place about two weeks apart. TROPICS requires three launches to place the satellites in separate orbital planes to improve revisit times.
“I love TROPICS just because it’s a bit of a crazy mission,” he said. “Think of six cubesats doing science, watching tropical storms with a repeat time of 50 minutes instead of 12 hours.”
Each three-unit cubesat carries a microwave radiometer to collect temperature, humidity and precipitation information. NASA tested this sensor on an experimental cubesat, TROPICS Pathfinder, launched in 2021. The full TROPICS constellation will allow for frequent revisits that are useful for tracking rapidly growing tropical storm systems.
Both the TROPICS satellites and at least the first of the three Rocket 3.3 vehicles have been ready for some time, with the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial launch license the only step remaining. Astra previously obtained an FAA launch license for a Cape Canaveral launch in February using the agency’s simplified Part 450 regulations and did not explain why it needed a new license for the TROPICS launches.
Kemp, in an interview in May, suggested that one factor was the high rate of launch activity in the East Range. “There’s never been such a busy time on the Cape,” he said. “There is nothing in our way other than getting all the final details from the FAA and the scope worked out.”
The launch will be Astra’s first since a March 15 mission that put its first customer payloads into orbit. It was only the second Astra launch to reach orbit in six attempts, following a November 2021 launch that carried only an instrumentation package that remained attached to the upper stage.
NASA is embracing the risk associated with the vehicle. Zurbuchen noted at the Space Studies Council meeting that the mission requires only two of the three launches to be successful to achieve its scientific goals.
“This is a different level of risk than what we do in so many other things where we focus on really flattening the risk – reducing it as much as we can – and that’s deliberate,” he said. “It’s deliberate because speed is important when you’re in the innovation game and we want new features, new assets, new tools.”