June 21, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA

Rocket Lab launches NASA's first PREFIRE climate monitoring spacecraft – Spaceflight Now

The PREFIRE mission will launch the first of two CubeSats, depicted in this artist's concept orbiting Earth, into space on Saturday, May 25, 2024, to study how much heat the planet absorbs and emits from its polar regions. These measurements will serve as the basis for climate and ice models. Graphic: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Update 4:36 am EDT: Rocket Lab confirms a successful deployment of NASA's PREFIRE-1 cubesat.
Update 3:52 am EDT: Takeoff occurred at 3:41 am EDT. Good first and second stage burns. Start stage ignition
Update at 3:30 a.m. EDT: The countdown to a new T-0 has resumed at 3:41 a.m. EDT.
Update 3:20 am EDT: Countdown on hold due to strong onshore winds.
Update 10:44 pm EDT: Rocket Lab set the T-0 liftoff time for the mission.

NASA is preparing to launch a pair of climate research missions within weeks of each other. The two spacecraft share the name. PRE FIRE (Polar Radiant Energy in the Far Infrared Experiment) and are designed to study how much heat is absorbed and emitted from Earth's polar regions, the space agency said.

The first spacecraft, PREFIRE-1, will lift off on May 25 aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket at 7:28 pm NZST (3:28 am EDT, 0728 UTC). A specific date and time for the second mission has not yet been announced.

“We are seeking new insights into how Earth's atmosphere and ice influence the amount of heat the polar regions lose to space,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA's Earth Sciences Division. in a pre-launch conference call. “This is new information and we have never had it before. We will improve our ability to model what happens at the poles, what happens in the climate, and ultimately our ability to predict everything from weather to climate.

“This is important to our strategy of providing Earth science that is actionable and can inform the decisions of communities around the world about how to respond and adapt to changing environmental conditions.”

The PREFIRE-1 CubeSat is integrated into part of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket in a clean room before launch. Image: Rocket Laboratory

St. Germain also noted that by using a pair of CubeSats, rather than larger spacecraft, NASA is exploring ways to create more targeted and agile missions in the future that may not require as much time and expense.

In addition to the cost and logistical benefit, Tristan L'Ecuyer, PREFIRE principal investigator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said placing the twin spacecraft in slightly different orbits will be critical to the scientific data they seek to collect.

“With one CubeSat, we will be able to map what the emissions look like in the polar regions, but with a second CubeSat flying over, about six hours later, we will be able to understand how they change. something like the melting of the ice sheet or the formation of a cloud or an increase in the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, how that affects the emission between the two different CubeSats,” L'Ecuyer said.

“So we'll use the two CubeSats to make measurements over the course of several hours apart, taking the difference between those measurements and trying to understand how the processes that are happening in the Arctic are actually affecting Arctic emissions.”

Mary White, director of the PREFIRE project, said each spacecraft is about the size of a large shoe box and will be launched into asynchronous near-polar orbits. To measure the changes mentioned by L'Ecuyer, the spacecraft has an instrument called a “thermal infrared spectrometer,” which has been used in larger configurations by both airplanes and spacecraft.

“Although it's a developing technology, these thermopile detectors, we're flying more pixels into each detector than have ever been flown before,” White explained. “We have an array of eight pixels in the spatial direction by 64 pixels in the spectral direction.”

The PREFIRE-1 CubeSat is integrated into part of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket in a clean room before launch. Image: Rocket Laboratory

About an hour and a half after launch, PREFIRE-1 will open its solar panels to begin charging its batteries. Those on the ground will attempt to establish communication with it through a ground station about five hours after launch.

White said the spacecraft needs about five days to perform checks before controllers are ready to turn on its main instrument. At that point, they will need approximately another five days to verify the instrument. However, White said they budgeted a month for this process, in case they need more time.

“We may start some calibration in the second half of that month, but we'll get data from the instrument, sort of preliminary data, probably starting five or six days into the mission,” White said.

L'Ecuyer added that it will also take some time to review the preliminary data to make sense of it.

“But at the end of a couple of months, we hope to be able to have new observations of what the clouds are like in the Arctic, what the surface characteristics are like, whether the ice sheet is melting or refreezing and then also information about the humidity in the Arctic,” L'Ecuyer said. “(It is) very difficult to measure from the ground because it is also very inhospitable there, but it is also very difficult to measure using other existing satellites.”

The two PREFIRE missions will also mark Rocket Lab's 48th and 49th launches using its Electron rocket. The satellites will be deployed in a 525 km circular Earth orbit with an inclination of 97.5°.

rocket laboratory Announced received the mission through NASA VADR (Venture-class acquisition of dedicated and ride-sharing vehicles) in August 2023. According to a NASA report presentationThe cost of the mission is capped at $32.78 million.

“We're tremendously excited and obviously launching these two missions and also ensuring that the spacecraft reach orbit safely,” said Peter Beck, CEO and founder of Rocket Lab.

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