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NASA’s small sat hurricane tracking mission begins public release of data

The year 2016 produced five land-falling storms, including Matthew that caused $10 billion in damage and killed 34 people in the US and 551 in the Caribbean. It was one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes on record. Courtesy NOAA
The year 2016 produced five land-falling storms, including Matthew that caused $10 billion in damage and killed 34 people in the US and 551 in the Caribbean. It was one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes on record. Courtesy NOAA

As the Atlantic hurricane season officially began on June 1 – and according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration it could be a busy one with an above-average range of 5-9 hurricanes likely in the Atlantic – NASA’s unique hurricane tracking constellation began public release of its data products.

The NASA constellation – known as the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System or CYGNSS – began regular release of its data to the public in May end to coincide with the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season on June 1. The data will be facilitated by NASA Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center.

Launched into a low inclination, low-Earth orbit over the tropics on December 15, 2016, CYGNSS is a fleet of eight next-generation microsatellites, which is expected to help researchers understand how deadly hurricanes develop and discover innovative new approaches to face them. CYGNSS has started taking frequent measurements of ocean surface winds in the tropics, with the primary objective of monitoring the location, intensity, size, and development of tropical cyclones.

The mission’s ability to track the development of surface winds in a major storm is demonstrated by preliminary measurements made during its flyover of Tropical Cyclone Enawo on March 6, as the system approached Madagascar with surface winds in excess of 100 mph.

“Successive spacecraft in the constellation observed Enawo over a period of several hours just before it made landfall on Madagascar,” explained Chris Ruf, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Michigan and CYGNSS Principal Investigator. “During the flyover, four of our eight spacecraft were operating in science mode and we managed to capture important elements of the size and structure of the storm.” The other four spacecraft are still undergoing engineering commissioning activities.

How CYGNSS works?

CYGNSS is the first mission that has the ability to probe the inner core of hurricanes in greater detail to better understand their rapid intensification, and thus provide 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.

CYGNSS
CYGNSS is the first mission that has the ability to probe the inner core of hurricanes in greater detail to better understand their rapid intensification. Courtesy NASA

As we told you in our previous blog, the CYGNSS mission uses the same GPS technology that the navigation system of a car uses. Each satellite takes information based on the signals from four GPS satellites to take a novel approach for measuring wind speeds over Earth’s oceans, and uses GPS signals bounced off of ocean surfaces to measure the height of waves to help measure wind speeds. As the CYGNSS and GPS constellations move around the earth, the interaction of the two systems result in a new image of wind speed over the entire tropics every few hours, compared to every few days for a single satellite.

An interesting point to note is that the CYGNSS mission orbit passes over the tropical region – which are mostly hit by hurricanes. 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. Successive satellites will be passing over the same region every 12 minutes.

The CYGNSS mission is led by the University of Michigan. The Southwest Research Institute led the engineering development and manages the operation of the constellation. The University of Michigan Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering department leads the science investigation, and the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate oversees the mission.