WASHINGTON — A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched a second pair of NASA storm-tracking cubesats late May 25, six years and three dozen flights after the company’s first orbital launch attempt.

The Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand at 11:46 p.m. Eastern. It deployed its payload of two NASA Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) cubesats into a 550-kilometer orbit inclined at 30 degrees.

The two satellites join two others in the four-satellite TROPICS constellation that Rocket Lab launched May 7. The 3U cubesats carry microwave radiometers that NASA scientists will use to monitor the formation of tropical storms, collecting data at an hourly cadence.

TROPICS originally had six satellites, but the first two were lost in the failure of an Astra Rocket 3.3 in June 2022. Astra subsequently retired that rocket, and NASA selected Rocket Lab to launch the remaining four satellites on two Electron vehicles. That was done using the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) contract through a task order in November 2022 valued at $12.99 million.

NASA sought to have the satellites launched in the second quarter of the year so that they would be in service by the start of the Atlantic hurricane season this summer.

“Electron was developed for exactly these kinds of missions – to deploy spacecraft reliably and on rapid timelines to precise and bespoke orbits, so we’re proud to have delivered that for NASA across both TROPICS launches and meet the deadline for getting TROPICS to orbit in time for the 2023 storm season,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a company statement.

Rocket Lab originally planned to launch the spacecraft from its new Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Virginia, but announced in April it would move the launches to New Zealand to ensure they could be launched in time. The company didn’t elaborate on the issues that would have prevented a timely launch from Virginia, but said in a May 9 earnings call that it was preparing for a launch of a new variant of Electron, called Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron (HASTE), from Virginia for a hypersonics test.

The second TROPICS launch was the 37th launch overall for the Electron, and took place almost exactly six years after the first Electron launch. The company has emerged as a leader in the dynamic, volatile small launch vehicle sector, one that has seen dozens of companies develop vehicles. It has also seen notable failures, including Virgin Orbit’s bankruptcy and sale of its assets. Rocket Lab was one of the companies that acquired Virgin Orbit assets, in the form of Virgin Orbit’s main manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California, and its equipment and machinery.

The launch was the fifth this year by Rocket Lab. The company said in its earnings call earlier in the month it projected up to 15 Electron launches this year, which include both orbital missions and HASTE flights. It did not disclose the split between Electron and HASTE missions.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...