Thursday, June 16, 2022

NASA's TROPICS Mission Now on Thin Ice

Pun intended.  If the pun doesn't mean much to you, we only briefly covered the mission in March of '21 (second half of that post).  As I said back then, TROPICS is the kind of name that's almost legally required to be an acronym, in this case: Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (they went with TROPICS instead of TROPSSICS).  In particular, it's intended for the observation of tropical weather systems like hurricanes and tropical storms (so I hope the lame joke at least makes some sense). 

Artist's concept of the TROPICS Cubesats in action.  NASA image.

The problem is that TROPICS was to have been a constellation of six radar satellites and two of the six were lost this week when Astra's rocket failed to achieve orbit.  Can the mission be done with 2/3 of the capability on orbit?  Assuming the other four satellites make it to orbit, which may be optimistic because all six are to be launched by Astra.  So far, they've achieved orbit twice out of nine tries.  One payload was successfully delivered to orbit, the other time they made orbit was a test flight.  

NASA says yes, the mission can still be accomplished with 2/3 of the planned satellites, in two orbits instead of the intended three. 

While we are disappointed in the loss of the two TROPICS CubeSats, the mission is part of NASA’s Earth venture program, which provides opportunities for lower-cost, higher risk missions. Despite a loss of the first two of six satellites, the TROPICS constellation will still meet its science objectives with the four remaining CubeSats distributed in two orbits.  With four satellites, TROPICS will still provide improved time-resolved observations of tropical cyclones compared to traditional observing methods.

TROPICS is an Earth venture mission - science-driven, competitively selected, low-cost missions that provide opportunity for investment in innovative Earth science to enhance our capability to better understand the current state of the Earth system and to enable continual improvement in the prediction of future changes.  

Three launch suppliers bid for this mission.  To tease the story a bit more, here are the three launch vehicles, courtesy of Twitter user SotirisG5.  L to R, Astra, Rocket Lab and SpaceX Starship.  Astra and SpaceX bid the same launch price: $8 million.  Rocket Lab's bid was "significantly higher."  (NASA's words)  NASA went with Astra.

To be fair, if NASA had chosen SpaceX, they wouldn't have lost the satellites because they wouldn't have launched.  Starship isn't yet operational - although Cubesats are so small, the mission might be in the envelope that Starship itself could handle as Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) without the Super Heavy booster.  Is it better to not be ready to launch than to launch and lose the payload?  Neither is ideal, but not losing the satellites gives you a chance to try again another day. 

Oh, by the way... Saturday marks the beginning of the fourth attempt of the Wet Dress Rehearsal for Artemis/SLS at the Kennedy Space Center.  A specific time on Saturday has not been named.  Saturday and Sunday will be taken up by preparations and verifying that all systems are working for the attempt to fuel the SLS Core vehicle tanks.  This will culminate in counting down to shortly before the engines would be started.  

Monday, June 20

7 a.m. – Live coverage of tanking operations with commentary begins

2:40 p.m. – Target test window

Coverage with live commentary throughout tanking operations will air on the media channel of NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website.

It's currently on the KSC Newsroom YouTube Channel, and all you can see is that it's night.  There are no flood lights on the vehicle. 

EDIT 061922 @1616 EDT:  Fixed last link in post which was a dead link that brought nothing up.

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