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NASA to launch pack of small satellites to track hurricanes

NASA small satellites to track hurricanes
The primary science goal of Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) is to better understand how and why winds in hurricanes intensify. CYGNSS is a unique satellite mission that consists of a constellation of eight small satellites. Source: NASA

Hurricanes or cyclones or typhoons, whatever you may call them are known to cause humongous devastation in terms of lives and properties in the areas they strike. It is often said the best defense against a hurricane is an accurate forecast that gives people time to get out of its way. 

Even though hurricane forecasts have improved in accuracy by about 50% since 1990, but this is next to nothing when we look at the accuracy of the intensity forecasts.

Now, NASA is set to launch a fleet of next-generation microsatellites to help researchers understand how deadly hurricanes develop and discover innovative new approaches for studying our changing planet. The pack of eight microsatellites will be launched on December 2 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

NASA small satellites to track hurricanes

The mission, known as Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), will measure details crucial to accurately understand the formation and intensity of tropical cyclones and hurricanes.

NASA small satellites to track hurricanes
Christopher Ruf, Director of the Space Physics Research Laboratory and AOSS Professor, inspects a Cygnss satellite. Photo: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

The CYGNSS mission uses the same GPS technology that the navigation system of a car uses. Each satellite will take information based on the signals from four GPS satellites to take a novel approach for measuring wind speeds over the Earth’s oceans. It will use GPS signals bounced off of ocean surfaces to measure the height of waves to help measure wind speeds. Researchers hope that the collection of data will eventually help meteorologists in predicting hurricanes.

The CYGNSS mission is expected to lead to more accurate weather forecasts of wind speeds and storm surges — the walls of water that do the most damage when hurricanes make landfall. Each satellite is capable of capturing four wind measurements per second, adding as much as 32 wind measurements per second for the entire constellation.

The eight satellites will be deployed separately around the planet and will thus increase the area on Earth to be measured. Successive satellites will be passing over the same region every 12 minutes. As the CYGNSS and GPS constellations move around the earth, the interaction of the two systems will result in a new image of wind speed over the entire tropics every few hours, compared to every few days for a single satellite.

The CYGNSS mission has another advantage – its orbit passes over only the tropical region, where hurricanes are mostly occur. Traditional weather satellites have polar orbits and they measure the whole globe. The focus on tropical activity means the CYGNSS instruments will be able to gather that much more useful data on weather systems exclusively found in the tropics.

How does it work?

Existing weather satellites can measure the wind outside of the storm cell with present systems but they can’t gauge what is happening. This gap in our knowledge will be filled by the CYGNSS data, a statement from Chris Ruf, Principal Investigator for the CYGNSS mission and Professor at the University of Michigan’s department of climate and space sciences and engineering, said.

CYGNSS can penetrate the heavy rain of a hurricane’s eyewall to gather data about a storm’s intense inner core, which existing operational weather satellites cannot. The eyewall is the thick ring of thunderstorm clouds and rain that surrounds the calm eye of a hurricane. The intense rain in the eyewalls blocks the view of the inner core by conventional satellites, thus preventing scientists from gathering much information about a developing hurricane.

“This is a first-of-its-kind mission,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “As a constellation of eight spacecraft, CYGNSS will do what a single craft can’t in terms of measuring surface wind speeds inside hurricanes and tropical cyclones at high time-resolution, to improve our ability to understand and predict how these deadly storms develop.”


First of many

CYGNSS is the first of the complete orbital mission competitively selected by NASA’s Earth Venture program. Earth Venture focuses on low-cost, rapidly developed, science-driven missions to enhance our understanding of the current state of Earth and its complex, dynamic system and enable continual improvement in the prediction of future changes.

The Space Physics Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor leads overall mission execution in partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and its Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering department leads the science investigation. The Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate oversees the mission.