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Astra prepares to launch NASA CubeSats to monitor tropical storms

The NASA TROPICS mission consists of a constellation of six small satellites that will observe tropical cyclones, aiming to improve the scientific community’s understanding of these dangerous weather events.

Astra Space, Inc. (NASDAQ; $ASTR) preparing to conduct the first of three launches of NASA cubesats to monitor tropical storms.

The company announced on June 8 that it was ready for the launch of 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 valued at $7.95 million.

The launch window for Rocket 3.3 "LV0010" with a pair of TROPICS (No.2 & 3) opens at 12pm ET / 9am PT (1600 UTC) on Sunday, June 12,

Astra Rocket 3 "LV0010" installed at SLC-46 (Credit: Astra)

The TROPICS mission will launch a constellation of small cubesats to capture key storm measurements—moisture, temperature and precipitation—to help predict the direction and intensity of storms. TROPICS is made up of six 3U cubesats, orbiting three different planes. This constellation will yield a revisit rate of less than 1 hour, which will be much more helpful in forecasting and storm preparation! By reducing the size, cost and power consumption, more satellites can be launched into orbit and significantly increase coverage and data collection. This approach aligns very well with Astra’s strategy of designing a smaller, lower-cost rocket that can be produced at scale for frequent, dedicated launches to precise inclinations.

Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS)

TROPICS will study tropical cyclones like hurricanes, some of the most powerful and destructive weather events on Earth, by measuring storm characteristics with a sensor about the size of a coffee cup. The miniaturized microwave radiometer detects the thermal radiation naturally emitted by the oxygen and water vapor in the air. TROPICS has the potential to provide near-hourly observations of a storm’s precipitation, temperature, and humidity. This data can help scientists increase understanding of the processes driving rapid changes in storm structure and intensity, which will improve weather forecasting models.

The TROPICS team is led by Principal Investigator Dr. William Blackwell at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington and includes researchers from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several universities and commercial partners. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will manage the launch service.

Astra will launch the other four TROPICS CubeSats in two separate launches later this summer.

I love TROPICS just because it’s kind of a crazy mission, “Think of six cubesats doing science, looking at tropical storms with a repeat time of 50 minutes instead of 12 hours.” - Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science

Chris Kemp, Astra's founder and CEO, in an interview in May, suggested one factor was the high rate of launch activity at the Eastern Range (45th Space Wing). “There’s never been a busier time out at the Cape,” he said. “There’s nothing standing in our way other than getting all the final details with the FAA and the range worked out.”

The company said in a May 5 earnings call that the three TROPICS launches were the next on the manifest and would take place in “a pretty rapid cadence,” according to Kemp. However, he said it was unlikely the company would conduct all three launches in the second quarter.

As part of its plan to boost launch cadence, Astra announced plans in May 2022 to launch out of SaxaVord UK Spaceport as early as 2023. And if all goes to plan for the company, that’ll be just the beginning for Astra's Rocket 4.0

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