Astra to launch first TROPICS flight for NASA

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The first of three flights to launch the TROPICS satellites for NASA is set for Sunday during a window from 12:00 PM to 2:00 PM EDT (16:00 to 18:00 UTC). Astra’s LV0010 vehicle will launch from SLC-46 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, making the company’s seventh orbital launch attempt.

If the pair of TROPICS spacecraft is successfully deployed into low Earth orbit, it will be Astra’s third successful orbital launch, and the first from Cape Canaveral. A 40% chance of favorable weather is forecasted by the 45th Weather Squadron for the opening of Sunday’s window — decreasing to 10% go odds further into the window. A backup opportunity available on Monday if needed.

The target orbit for TROPICS-1 is at an altitude of 500 km and an inclination of 29.75 degrees. This mid-inclination orbit makes the mission optimal for launching from Cape Canaveral, unlike Astra’s other launch site in Kodiak, Alaska, which is more favorable for polar orbit missions.

TROPICS, which stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats, is planned to consist of six satellites in total launched across three Astra Rocket 3.3 flights. A seventh satellite, serving as a pathfinder, was previously launched on the SpaceX Transporter-2 mission in June 2021.

The 3U CubeSats are built by Blue Canyon Technologies and operated for NASA by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Lab. Each satellite carries a passive microwave spectrometer as well as a radiometer payload in order to study and monitor tropical storms and hurricanes.

The satellite constellation has been designed to be fully operational if only four of the six satellites reach orbit, or if two of the three launches are successful. However, delivering all six satellites to orbit successfully would result in a higher revisit rate and thus improved scientific data from the mission.

TROPICS-1 is Astra’s seventh orbital launch attempt since the first and only flight of Rocket 3.1 in September 2020. After a few test flights that fell short of orbit, Astra successfully placed the LV0007 vehicle’s upper stage with a hosted US Space Force payload into orbit from Kodiak in November 2021.

The next launch, LV0008 in February 2022, was Astra’s first from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-46 and the company’s first for NASA. The ELaNa-41 mission failed to deploy multiple CubeSats into orbit due to a fairing separation failure. The following mission, LV0009 from Kodiak, was the first to successfully deploy payloads into orbit for Spaceflight Inc. in March 2022.

The LV0010 vehicle arrived at Cape Canaveral in May, having traveled via truck from Astra’s headquarters and factory in Alameda, California. In preparation for flight, a static fire test was conducted at SLC-46 on June 1, testing all five of the Delphin engines on the first stage as well as all of the ground support equipment.

Those Delphin engines will ignite again at T0 to lift the vehicle off the pad. Six seconds later, the vehicle will begin pitching downrange to achieve the horizontal velocity needed to achieve orbit.

The vehicle will pass through the area of maximum dynamic pressure, or Max-Q, approximately one minute and 10 seconds after liftoff. The first stage continues to to power flight until T+ three minutes, when all five engines shut down at Main Engine Cutoff (MECO).

Five seconds later, the fairing which protects both the payloads and the upper stage during ascent, will separate. Another five seconds later, the upper stage will separate, and at T+ three minutes and 15 seconds, the Aether engine on the upper stage ignites to begin an approximately five minute long burn.

After Second Engine Cutoff (SECO) at approximately T+ eight minutes and 30 seconds, the LV0010 upper stage and TROPICS spacecraft will be in low Earth orbit. Ten seconds later, the two satellites will deploy. Over the first couple orbits, NASA will make contact with the spacecraft and begin checking out the onboard systems before beginning their hurricane hunting missions.

The next two Astra launches, LV0011 and LV0012, will launch the remaining four TROPICS satellites from Cape Canaveral this year.

(Lead photo: LV0010 on the pad at SLC-46 before launch. Credit: Astra/Brady Kenniston)

NASASpaceflight and Astra are partnering to broadcast the TROPICS-1 mission. As part of the partnership, Astra is covering some expenses associated with producing the broadcast.

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