NASA’s New TROPICS Mission Launch Will Help in Tracking Hurricanes

By Yashika Sharma

May 26, 2023
A constellation of identical 3U CubeSats. Credits: Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, Public Domain

In collaboration with Rocket Labs, NASA launched the TROPICS satellite on 26 May 2023, called CubeSats, as part of NASA’s VADR (Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated & Rideshare) launch services contract as of November 2022.

The latest launch from Rocket Lab was dubbed Coming to a Storm Near You.

TROPICS is an acronym for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and storm intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats.

After a June 2022 launch failure of an Astra Space Inc. rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., the NASA mission was trimmed back from the original plan of six CubeSats. NASA rebid contracts for the remaining launches, which were won by Rocket Lab.

TROPICS is one of NASA’s Earth venture-instrument missions, which are science-driven, competitively selected, low-cost endeavors that allow for investment in innovative Earth science to improve our ability better to understand the current state of the Earth system and enable continuous improvement in the prediction of future changes.

CubeSAT/TROPICS Mission Profile

TROPICS compiles four identical 3U CubeSats, each around the size of a loaf of bread and weighing approximately 12 pounds.

Each CubeSat was planned to survive about two years, but analysis, lifespan testing of key components, and on-orbit experiences with similar gear could help the satellites outlive their design lifetime.

The TROPICS CubeSat payload is a spinning microwave radiometer with highly integrated, compact microwave receiver electronics that measure microwave frequencies ranging from approximately 90 to 205 gigahertz, allowing monitoring of atmospheric emissions produced by water vapor, oxygen, and clouds1.

TROPICS’s planned altitude is 342 miles (550 km), with both sets of CubeSats in slightly distinct low Earth orbits oriented roughly 30 degrees above the equator.

TROPICS Pathfinder, a proof-of-concept CubeSat that will launch in June 2021, has collected photos of many tropical cyclones, including Hurricane Ida over the United States, Cyclone Batsirai over Madagascar, and Super Typhoon Mindulle over eastern Japan. 

The research team has also used the Pathfinder satellite to fine-tune the satellites’ software and operating procedures before the constellation launches.

The pathfinder has already been calibrated and will be used as a calibration reference for the remaining TROPICS constellation satellites, it enables the TROPICS CubeSats to begin producing relevant data as soon as possible.

According to NASA, scientists will examine temperature profiles in orbit that are conducive to storm formation on Earth’s surface, and then utilize a weather prediction model and radiometric imaging to better predict how such storms would behave.

The purpose, according to Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck, “aims to equip scientists and researchers with more accurate and timely storm data to provide better forecasts and warning to those in the path of devastating cyclones and hurricanes.”

References

  1. Leejay Lockhart, ‘Mission Facts About NASA’s TROPICS’, NASA, 25 May 2023, https://blogs.nasa.gov/smallsatellites/2023/05/25/mission-facts-about-nasas-TROPICS-2/[]
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