NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats (TROPICS) will observe the atmosphere to increase our understanding of hurricanes, typhoons, and other intense weather.
Rocket Lab has announced the mission now will be sent into orbit on two Electron rockets – each carrying two TROPICS CubeSats – from Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand in May to maintain the target launch window in time for this year’s hurricane season.
Each launch, traveling to separate orbital planes, will place a pair of the small satellites in orbit to increase the frequency in which tropical cyclones are measured from space.
The TROPICS constellation enables researchers to monitor the evolution of tropical cyclones with a frequency of about once per hour as compared to currently only once every 6 hours. Each TROPICS satellite is an identical 3U (1U, or unit = 10cm x 10cm x 10cm) CubeSat that is about the size of a loaf of bread and weighs about 12 pounds.
The TROPICS team is led by Dr. William Blackwell at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, and includes researchers from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and several universities and commercial partners.
NASA awarded the launch services to Rocket Lab in November 2022, as part of the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract.
Courtesy of NASA
Designed, manufactured, and launched by Rocket Lab, Electron is a two-stage launch vehicle powered by liquid oxygen (LOx) and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1). By incorporating an orbital transfer vehicle stage (Kick Stage) that can deploy multiple payloads to unique orbits on the same mission, Electron can support dedicated missions and rideshares.
Height: 18 m / 59 ft
Diameter: 1.2 m / 3.9 ft
Stages: 2 + Kick Stage
Wet mass: 13,000 kg / 28,660 lb
Payload to LEO: 300 kg / 661 lb
Electron utilizes advanced carbon composite technologies throughout the launch vehicle structures, including all of Electron’s propellant tanks. The carbon-composite construction of Electron decreases mass by as much as 40 percent compared with traditional aluminum launch vehicle structures. Rocket Lab fabricates tanks and other carbon composite structures in-house to improve cost efficiency and drive rapid production.
Electron is powered by the in-house designed and produced additively manufactured Rutherford engines.
Electron’s first stage consists of nine sea-level Rutherford engines, linerless common bulkhead tanks for LOx and RP-1, and an interstage.
Rocket Lab’s flagship engine, the 5,600 lbf (24 kN) Rutherford, is an electric pumped LOx/ kerosene engine specifically designed for the Electron launch vehicle. Rutherford adopts an entirely new electric propulsion cycle, making use of brushless DC electric motors and high-performance lithium polymer batteries to drive its propellant pumps. This cuts down on much of the complex turbomachinery typically required for gas generator cycle engines, meaning that the Rutherford is simpler to build than a traditional engine but can achieve 90% efficiency. 130 Rutherford engines have been flown to space on Electron as of July 2020. Rutherford is also the first oxygen/hydrocarbon engine to use additive manufacturing for all primary components, including the regeneratively cooled thrust chamber, injector pumps, and main propellant valves. The Stage 1 and Stage 2 Rutherford engines are identical, with the exception of a larger expansion ratio nozzle for Stage 2 for improved performance in near-vacuum-conditions. All aspects of the Rutherford engines are completely designed in-house and are manufactured directly at our Long Beach headquarters in California, USA.
Electron’s second stage consists of a single vacuum-optimized Rutherford engine, and linerless common bulkhead tanks for LOx and kerosene. With an expanded nozzle, Electron’s second-stage engine produces a thrust of 5,800 lbf and has a specific impulse of 343 sec.
The 1.2 m diameter second stage has approximately 2,000 kg of propellant on board. The Electron Stage 2 has a burn time of approximately five minutes with a Rutherford vacuum engine as it places the Kick Stage into orbit.
High Voltage Batteries (HVBs) batteries provide power to the LOx and kerosene pumps for high-pressure combustion while a pressurant system is used to provide enough pump inlet pressure to safely operate. During the second stage burn, two HVBs power the electric pumps until depletion, when a third HVB takes over for the remainder of the second stage burn. Upon depletion, the first two HVBs are jettisoned from Electron to reduce mass and increase performance in flight.
The engine thrust is directed with electromechanical thrust vector actuators in two axes. Roll control is provided via a cold gas reaction control system (RCS
Rocket Lab’s Kick Stage offers our customers unmatched flexibility for orbital deployment. The Kick Stage is a third stage of the Electron launch vehicle used to circularize and raise orbits to deploy payloads to unique and precise orbital destinations. The Kick Stage is powered by Rocket Lab’s in-house designed and built Curie engine. In its simplest form, the Kick Stage serves as in-space propulsion to deploy payloads to orbit. It its most advanced configuration the Kick Stage becomes Photon, Rocket Lab’s satellite bus that supports several-year duration missions to LEO, MEO, Lunar, and interplanetary destinations.
Credit: Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1B (LC-1B) on the Māhia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island is the latest part of the company's launch complex, with another under construction at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia.
An isolated location, the Māhia launch site hosted its first orbital launch attempt of Electron in May 2017 and its first successful orbital launch in January 2018. The first launch for LC-1B is scheduled for February 2022.
Together with Rocket Lab's third launch pad in Virginia, their launch sites can support up to 132 Electron launch opportunities every year.
The Māhia location has two launch pads (LC-1A and LC-1B) and two separate integration hangers to permit simultaneous and protected processing of two payloads for flight at the same time.
Pad B shares Pad A’s range assets including launch vehicle assembly hangar, three satellite cleanrooms, range control, and offices.
Photo: Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island is the company's first of two launch pads, the other being under construction at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia.
An isolated location, the Mahia launch site hosted its first orbital launch of Electron in May 2017 and first successful orbital launch in January 2018.
The Mahia location has one launch pad (LC-1) and two separate intergration hangers to permit simultaneous and protected processing of two Electron missions' payloads for flight at the same time.