First NASA TROPICS satellites launch to monitor tropical storms

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Technicians on April 26 preparing the CubeSats for encapsulation in the Electron.
Image: NASA.
An animation of the TROPICS constellation.
Image: NASA.

On Sunday at about 13:00 NZST (0100 UTC), a Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched the first two of four NASA TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats) CubeSats from Māhia, New Zealand.

The CubeSats would form an array in low-Earth orbit, collecting observations of tropical cycloness' precipitation, temperature, and humidity more frequently than weather satellites currently in orbit.

Ben Kim, a program executive with NASA's Earth Science Division, said: "TROPICS aims to improve our scientific understanding by obtaining microwave observations that allow us to see the inner structure of the storm approximately hourly."

TROPICS would share data with, among other organizations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, and the National Hurricane Center.

The satellites are scheduled to begin observations before the 2023 hurricane season begins. Kim noted Hurricane Ian, among three hurricanes to strike the US last year, inflicted more than US$100 billion in damages while killing over 100.

Rocket Lab secured the launch contract last November. NASA terminated a contract with Astra after an Astra rocket experienced ignition failure in June, with two TROPICS satellites burning up as the rocket's upper stage reentered the atmosphere.