WASHINGTON — Astra Space is preparing for the first of three launches of NASA cubesats to track tropical storms beginning June 12, pending receipt of a launch license.
The company announced on June 8 that it was ready to launch two Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) cubesats 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 launch license on Friday [June 10] to enable us to begin a series of launches for the TROPICS mission coming out of Cape Canaveral,” said Chris Kemp, chief executive of Astra, in a Bloomberg Television June 8. “Our launch window will open on Sunday, we should get the permit on Friday.”
The company said in a May 5 earnings call that the three TROPICS launches were next on the manifest and would take place at “a pretty fast cadence,” Kemp said. However, he said the company was unlikely to complete all three launches in the second quarter.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said at a June 9 meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board that the launches would be about two weeks apart. TROPICS requires three launches to place the satellites in separate orbital planes to improve return times.
“I like TROPICS just because it’s a bit of a crazy mission,” he said. “Think of six Cubesats doing science looking at tropical storms with a return time of 50 minutes instead of 12 hours.”
Each three-unit cube contains a microwave radiometer to collect information about temperature, humidity and precipitation. NASA has tested that sensor on an experimental cubesat, TROPICS Pathfinder, launched in 2021. The full TROPICS constellation will allow for frequent visits useful for tracking the rapid growth of 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 now, with the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial launch license the only step remaining. Astra previously obtained an FAA launch license for a February launch from Cape Canaveral using the agency’s streamlined Part 450 regulations, and did not explain why it needed a new license for the TROPICS launches.
Kemp suggested in an interview in May that one factor was the high level of launch activity on the Eastern Range. “There’s never been such a busy time on the Cape,” he said. “There’s nothing standing in our way more than getting all the final details with the FAA and the scope is worked out.”
The launch is the first for Astra since a March 15 mission that brought the first customer payloads into orbit. It was only the second launch of the Astra to reach Earth orbit in six attempts, following a November 2021 launch that carried only an instrumentation package attached to the upper stage.
NASA embraces the risk associated with the vehicle. Zurbuchen noted at the Space Studies Board meeting that the mission needs only two out of three launches to be successful in achieving its science goals.
“This is a different level of risk than what we do in so many other things where we focus on really smoothing out the risk — lowering it as much as possible — and that’s intentional,” he said. “It’s a conscious choice, because speed is important when you’re in the innovation game and we want new possibilities, new resources, new tools.”