AMS Spring 2023

NASA Awards TROPICS CubeSat Mission to Rocket Lab

Inkbit

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Spacecraft manufacturer Rocket Lab (Nasdaq: RKLB) has more big plans for the company as it expands its US presence. Known for its almost entirely 3D printed engines, the rocket company has been selected by NASA to launch a new mission that targets the formation and evolution of tropical cyclones, including hurricanes.
According to the contract, sometime after May 1, 2023, Rocket Lab will launch four CubeSats in two low Earth orbital planes for the TROPICS mission, which stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity. These two dedicated Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licensed missions will blast off aboard Electron rockets from Launch Complex 2 within the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Each CubeSat will host a high-performance radiometer scanning across the satellite track to provide temperature profiles, storm intensity, precipitation measurements, and cloud ice measurements. These data will help scientists better understand the processes affecting high-impact storms, ultimately leading to improved modeling and prediction. Even more so, one of the key objectives of the satellite constellation is to allow NASA to closely observe the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season, which begins on June 1.

A rocky start

These four TROPICS satellites were initially slated to travel to LEO on a rocket from launch vehicle maker Astra. However, the first pair of CubeSats were destroyed on June 12, 2022, when the second stage of a Rocket 3.3 failed just before reaching orbit, leading to Astra’s decision to abandon the booster in favor of its larger Rocket 4. Following this failure, NASA announced last August it was seeking new launch vehicles to put the sats in orbit.

Luckily, NASA had 12 other companies lined up to provide launch services through its Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare missions program. Competing against other powerhouses like ABL Space Systems, Relativity Space, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit, it is finally Rocket Lab that gets to deliver the last four TROPICS satellite to space.

An Electron rocket lifts off from the new Pad B at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.

Although the contract award for the upcoming feat remains undisclosed, Astra was originally given a total value of $7.95 million for the TROPICS launch contract in February 2021. It is still unclear whether the modification to this existing launch services agreement will change the value of the contract.

NASA’s new launcher designation is a huge vote of confidence move for Rocket Lab. The latest contract joins a growing list of upcoming Rocket Lab missions for NASA, including the launch services and spacecraft bus that will deliver the CAPSTONE satellite to the Moon, another subcontract to design two Photon spacecraft for a scientific mission destined for Mars, and the launch of the agency’s Advanced Composite Solar Sail System (ACS3) technology.

Discussing details of the upcoming mission, Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck said this year’s devastating effects of hurricanes and tropical storms proved how important improved climate data from space is to enable scientists and researchers to accurately predict storm strength and give people time to evacuate.

“The TROPICS satellites need a responsive and reliable path to orbit to equip people with near real-time, actionable weather data and Rocket Lab is honored to provide a dependable launch solution as we approach the 2023 hurricane season. We look forward to working closely with the team at NASA to deliver mission success once again,” indicated Beck.

NASA selects Rocket Lab to launch the TROPICS mission. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.

The two dedicated TROPICS launches will take off aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron. The company has successfully leveraged 3D printing for part rocket part production. The Electron launch vehicle, in particular, is powered by Rocket Lab’s in-house designed and additively manufactured Rutherford engines.

AM heritage for rockets

Since its first launch in 2017, Rocket Lab has released additional performance from Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engines boosting the Electron’s total payload lift capacity up to 300 kg/660 LBM. 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.

Headquartered in Long Beach, California, Rocket Lab is a United States company that operates launch sites in Māhia, New Zealand, and Wallops Island. In addition, rocket Lab operates more than five acres of manufacturing facilities and test complexes. It employs advanced manufacturing techniques, including 3D printing, to enable the high-rate production of satellites and launch vehicles.

Today, Rocket Lab is a $2.5 billion company publicly traded on Nasdaq. Although the company is waiting to achieve profitability once the work on its reusable Neutron rocket is complete, its revenue grew more than tenfold in the past year, and Beck’s firm delivered quarterly results that boasted record revenue. Company stock soared more than 20 percent in early November after reporting third-quarter revenue results in line with expectations.

With this latest TROPICS constellation contract from NASA, Rocket Lab has a lot to look forward to in the next couple of months, including the launch of the first Electron rocket from the US in December.

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