New microsatellites will improve hurricane forecasting

Photo Credit: NASA

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (KXAN) — Eight microsatellites, collectively called the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), will be launched late this fall by NASA in an attempt to better understand the winds inside a hurricane.

Hurricane track forecasts have improved greatly in the past 65 years, but very little improvement has been made in forecasting a developing hurricane’s intensity.

The idea was proposed by a team of professors at the University of Michigan five years ago. Professor Chris Ruf, who specializes in both Atmospheric Science and Electrical Engineering, feels like this journey has come “full circle” for him: as a grad student, he helped develop a part that is found on all of the Hurricane Hunter airplanes flown by the National Hurricane Center today. He wants to see improvement in hurricane intensity forecasting: for that, you’ve got to be able to see winds in the eye of the storm.

Hurricane Hunter airplanes are the current gold standard in monitoring tropical cyclones. They’re used in addition to satellite data, in order to get closer to the storm. But they have to remain close to a home base, which means many developing tropical storms, hurricanes and typhoons on the open ocean go without.

But these new, smaller satellites will change that.

Ruf says, “We have eight satellites and each one has four channels on it that can track four different spots on the ground, so it’s like having 32 Hurricane Hunter airplanes in the air somewhere in the tropics at all times.” The difference is huge. Only one Hurricane Hunter plane usually flies through a storm at a time.

Current satellites orbit the Earth once every three days. They can’t see past heavy rain, and they can’t adapt to quickly-changing conditions inside of storms. The CYGNSS will allow eight satellites to orbit the Earth once a day. They bring new data every 12 minutes, instead of once every three to six hours.

Why eight satellites? Well, simply, the $150 million budget won’t allow for any more. They’ll launch together from the surface of the Earth and split into low orbit in pairs on Nov. 21, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a Pegasus XL rocket.

The payload aboard that rocket will be relatively small, compared to current satellites. Each new satellite weighs only 64 pounds and contains a 70-inch solar panel.

CYGNSS will measure winds throughout the life cycle of tropical cyclones. The satellites get information on how “rough” the surface of the ocean is, which is an indicator of surface wind speeds. The higher the wind speed, the more intense the storm.

This is especially important for storms that remain disorganized until shortly before landfall. The most recent example is hurricane Patricia, a storm that had explosive growth and became the second most intense tropical cyclone on record in October 2015. Even though Patricia hit Mexico, she created more than $50 million in damage in Texas due to flooding.

CYGNSS data can be publicly viewed about three months after launch, likely in early 2017. All teams involved in this project stress that CYGNSS data will have applications other than hurricanes, including measuring subsoil moisture which can improve forecasts for flash flood potential. The project is expected to run for two years, but if it proves incredibly useful, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can lobby NASA to keep it running longer.

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio developed the microsatellites for use by NASA. This isn’t their first rodeo; they also had a hand in the recent Juno mission to Jupiter. SwRI is testing the new small satellites this week. So far, the team quotes results as “flawless.

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