NASA has found a new service provider to launch its extreme weather observation satellites. The agency announced Wednesday that it has selected Rocket Lab to launch its Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation and Storm Intensity satellites through two launches in late spring next year.
Missions that take place no earlier than May 1 will carry two cubesats each. Given that the US Federal Aviation Administration has licensed the launches, it’s safe to assume that they will take place in Virginia, Rocket Lab’s only launch site in the US. So far, the company has launched exclusively from the Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, although it hopes to change that with the first launch from Virginia on December 7th.
The question of which launch company NASA will choose for TROPICS missions has been left open for the past two months since the agency announced that its original partner, Astra, will no longer conduct launches. Astra’s $7.95 million contract called for three launches of the Rocket 3.3 rocket, a rocket that Astra later announced would be phased out in favor of the larger, more powerful Rocket 4 rocket.
But Rocket 4 is still a work in progress – and may not be ready to launch until 2024. NASA decided not to wait that long and said in September it would change the TROPICS launch contract with Astra for “comparable scientific payloads” on the new rocket.
Astra undertook only one of three contracted TROPICS launches back in June, but both satellites were lost after the second stage of the rocket encountered a problem and shut down before the payload could be deployed.
Rocket Lab is one of thirteen companies participating in NASA’s contract to provide venture-grade Dedicated and Shared Ride Launch (VADR) services, a new program designed for highly risk-tolerant payloads. Companies participating in the VADR program range from true launch veterans like SpaceX to startups that have yet to launch their first rocket like ABL Space Systems and Relativity.