How tiny satellites could help warn the next big hurricane

Weather Blog

(KXAN) — From the sheer number of named storms to their devastating intensity, no one can forget the record-breaking 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season.

Hurricanes and tropical storms, collectively called tropical cyclones, are becoming more violent as the climate warms, making it more crucial than ever that meteorologists produce accurate forecasts to keep people safe.

Tropical cyclones are difficult to forecast. The main challenges are the storm intensity and its track, including where the storm will make landfall.

That’s the purpose of the Time-Revolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats mission, or TROPICS for short. TROPICS aims to increase the understanding of critical processes driving significant and rapid changes in storm structure and intensity.

According to NASA, the nanosatellite project will consist of six CubeSats, each the size of a shoebox, which will take rapid measurements that can be used to determine the temperature, pressure, and humidity inside hurricanes as they form and evolve.

The six CubeSat nanosatellites – each the size of a shoebox – will be launched in early 2022. Picture courtesy of Blue Canyon Technologies.

Geostationary satellites provide visible and infrared satellite images, which can’t see through cloud cover. In order to see below the clouds and collect important data about a storm, you need a polar orbiting satellite, which gathers data in the microwave range.

While geostationary satellites are, well, stationary, polar orbiting satellites circle the Earth, taking measurements from all longitudes as the planet rotates. The problem with polar orbiters is that it takes them 12 hours to complete a full trip around the globe. In that time, an area of interest could become an organized system or storm.

The TROPICS satellite constellation would reduce the lag, offering a detailed look and giving forecasters new information every 30 to 40 minutes.

For this to work, the six CubeSats must be launched in a very specific orbital configuration. In early 2022, the nanosatellites will be sent up two at a time on three separate trips. Each pair will share an orbit at a 30-degree angle to the Equator.

Once all six are in orbit, they’ll criss-cross the Equator at different points. This configuration allows for better and more frequent coverage in the tropics.

Courtesy of MIT Lincoln Lab.

Once the data is transmitted back to Earth, it will be sent to the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center and then fed into numerical weather models. Having more real-time data can make models and predictions more accurate.

Researchers with NOAA have already studied how effective this additional data could be. In a paper published in the American Meteorological Society’s Monthly Weather Review, the team found that TROPICS has positive impacts on tropical cyclone track and intensity forecasts.

The team found that, aided by this additional, regular source of data, the forecast of a storm’s track improved by 15%, and the intensity prediction also improved about 10%.

The smaller satellites also cost less and take much less time to develop. This means that rather than larger satellites launching already-outdated technology, the technology on the nanosatellites will be much newer.

Although the Atlantic has been quiet the past three weeks, hurricane season is far from over – the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is Sept. 10. Hurricane season is technically over Nov. 30, but tropical cyclones can still form past that date. The TROPICS project is one step forward in keeping us safe year-round.

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