New 'micro-satellites' to spy on hurricanes

Sometimes smaller is better.

A new constellation of eight "micro-satellites" — each about the size of a full-grown swan — that should improve hurricane forecasts is scheduled to launch into orbit in mid-December.

The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, or CYGNSS, is NASA's first small satellite constellation devoted to Earth science and also the first that's focused specifically on the tropics, according to Christine Bonniksen, NASA program executive for the mission.

The $151 million satellite system will gather key details about winds just above the ocean surface, which are crucial for hurricane intensity forecasts, NASA said.

Though hurricane track forecast accuracy has improved in the past few decades, there have been few advances in intensity forecast accuracy, experts say. This mission is specifically targeted to investigate how and why hurricanes rapidly strengthen.

Using GPS technology, the satellites will be able to peer through rain and clouds to determine the wind speed just above the surface of the ocean by measuring the "ocean roughness," said Chris Ruf, a University of Michigan professor and the principal investigator for the mission. Previously, this weather data had only been available from hurricane hunter airplanes sent out to analyze the storms.

"This will allow us to understand how hurricanes grow and predict how strong they'll be," Bonniksen said. The eight satellites will orbit around the world in 95 minutes and will be sending back data 24/7.

"CYGNSS will do what existing satellite technology can't in terms of measuring wind speeds inside hurricanes to improve our ability to predict these deadly storms," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

The computer models that meteorologists use to forecast hurricanes "will love this new information," said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist from WeatherBell Analytics who is not involved in the mission. The data "should lead to a better forecast," he said.

The satellites will also be used to study other weather and oceanic patterns besides hurricanes. They will measure waves and currents in the tropics and create "a great scientific data set," Maue said.

The satellites should be up and running by the end of January and sending back data by March, Bonniksen said.

Data from the satellites aren't likely to be used to actually forecast storms during the 2017 hurricane season; the information will need to be carefully vetted for accuracy. The data will be used for research purposes, however, and may be used to forecast active storms by 2018.

While funding for the satellites is secured for two years after launch, that funding could be extended if they prove successful, Ruf said. Hardware aboard the satellites should last for at least five years, he said. Their demise will come in about seven to nine years as their orbits decay and they eventually burn up in the atmosphere.

The mission will act as a a prototype for future similar small satellite systems for both private and public companies, Maue added.

The satellites were designed and built by scientists and engineers at the University of Michigan and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. They are set to launch from Cape Canaveral aboard a Pegasus XL rocket on Dec. 12.


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