WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab has shifted a pair of Electron launches of NASA storm-monitoring cubesats from Virginia to New Zealand, avoiding a potential conflict with another launch.
Rocket Lab announced April 10 that a pair of Electron launches of NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) satellites, previously planned to take place from the company’s Launch Complex (LC) 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia, will instead fly from LC-1 in New Zealand.
The first launch, dubbed “Rocket Like a Hurricane” by the company, is scheduled for no earlier than April 30. The second, called “Coming to a Storm Near You,” is scheduled for May 15. Each launch will carry two TROPICS cubesats.
Rocket Lab said the change is intended to ensure that the satellites are launched in time to be in service when the 2023 North Atlantic hurricane season begins this summer. Each TROPICS cubesat carries a passive microwave spectrometer that will provide temperature and humidity measurements to help monitor the development of tropical storm systems.
“With the 2023 hurricane season fast approaching, time is of the essence for these missions,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a company statement. “Because we operate three launch pads across two countries, we can constantly assess the launch manifest and adapt launch schedules and locations based on customer and mission requirements.”
The company did not disclose why the launches could not take place from LC-2 as originally planned other than that the shift to New Zealand would ensure they would launch in the second quarter. However, the change does avoid a potential conflict with a Northrop Grumman Antares launch of a Cygnus cargo mission to the International Space Station. That launch is tentatively scheduled for early May from Pad-0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops; Rocket Lab’s LC-2, also called Pad-0C, is right next to Pad-0A.
NASA opted for dedicated launches of TROPICS cubesats on small launch vehicles, rather than flying them as rideshares on larger vehicles, because of the mission’s specific orbital requirements. The original TROPICS constellation consisted of six cubesats in three orbital places at an inclination of 30 degrees and altitude of 550 kilometers, spaced out to maximize the temporal resolution of the constellation.
NASA picked Astra to launch TROPICS on three of its Rocket 3.3 vehicles, in a contract valued at about $8 million, but the first two TROPICS satellites were lost in a June 2022 launch failure from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Astra announced two months later it was retiring the Rocket 3.3 so it could focus on the larger Rocket 4 vehicle.
Rocket Lab won a task order under NASA’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract in November 2022 to launch the remaining four TROPICS cubesats from Wallops. Neither NASA nor Rocket Lab disclosed the value of that task order, but federal procurement databases showed it was valued at $12.99 million.
Additional conflicts between Antares and Electron launches are unlikely for the foreseeable future. The upcoming Antares launch is the last of the current version of the rocket, which uses a Ukrainian-built first stage with Russian engines. Northrop announced a partnership with Firefly Aerospace in August 2022 to develop a new first stage for Antares, but added it would launch at least three Cygnus missions, through 2024, on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets from Florida.