NASA seeks new rockets for hurricane satellite launches after Astra failures

rocket lifts off with green grass in the background
While carrying two TROPICS satellites, Astra's Launch Vehicle 0010 failed after liftoff on June 12, 2022. (Image credit: Footage provided by NASASpaceflight LLC and Astra Space Inc.)

Citing "urgent" hurricane-tracking satellite needs, NASA is on the hunt for new rockets after a launch effort failed to deliver two cubesats to space in June.

NASA is asking more companies to bid for launching its TROPICS satellite line in 2023 after its initial provider, Astra, lost a rocket carrying two TROPICS cubesats during the debut launch on June 12. (The cause remains under investigation.)

NASA officials say the TROPICS launch pivot is needed to for a "timely" launch (opens in new tab) of the cubesat constellation. September saw several huge hurricanes or intense tropical storms (like Hurricane Ian) slam into parts of Canada, the United States and Puerto Rico. Similar storms continue to intensify worldwide amid climate change, making the need for these satellites a pressing one. 

In photos: Astronaut looks inside eye of Hurricane Ian from space

To get TROPICS in orbit by 2023, NASA said it will turn to 13 companies preapproved (opens in new tab) under a commercial launch services contract, known as Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR).

"The VADR contract allows the 13 companies selected this year to compete for the rebid of the TROPICS launch services, giving the agency and external stakeholders the ability to use TROPICS data sooner," agency officials said in the statement.

TROPICS, which stands for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats, aims to allow researchers to view evolving tropical cyclones once an hour, far more frequently than is currently possible with weather satellites in orbit.

Astra's Rocket 3.3 that failed to launch TROPICS has had several failures during recent attempts, prompting the company to cancel that rocket line in August to focus on an improved version, called Rocket 4.0.

Once Rocket 4.0 is ready, NASA and Astra have modified their launch services contract "for the launch of comparable scientific payloads," NASA officials said. Prior to the launch failure, Astra had been selected in 2021 for three TROPICS launches upon the now-canceled Rocket 3.3.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace