NASA shrinks weather satellites way down to better see inside storms


UCAR

Storms, it seems, are getting bigger, but the tools that track them are getting smaller.

NASA is testing tiny satellites about the size of a shoebox to monitor global storms, and it’s seeing promising early results.

The RainCube flight system, with its solar panels and radar antenna deployed. 


UCAR

With the RainCube (Radar in a CubeSat), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wants to see whether smaller satellites can deliver more comprehensive weather data faster, and at a lower cost.

The idea is that mini-satellites that fly together like geese can give more frequent real-time looks inside storms, and thus track the movement of rain, snow, sleet and hail more accurately.

“We actually will end up doing much more interesting insightful science with a constellation rather than with just one of them,” Graeme Stephens, director of the Center for Climate Sciences at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “What we’re learning in Earth sciences is that space and time coverage is more important than having a really expensive satellite instrument that just does one thing.”

RainCube weighs about 26 pounds (12 kilograms). Its umbrella-like 1.6-foot (50-centimeter) antenna sends out specialized radar signals into a storm’s layers. The signals bounce off raindrops and send back a snapshot from inside the weather whirl. Radar systems are known to be large, but JPL engineers were able to reduce the size and mass to fit one into a CubeSat, a class of nanosatellites. The smaller radar payload also consumes less power.

NASA first deployed the RainCube from the International Space Station in July for a two-month test mission, and on Tuesday NASA shared that it successfully sent back its first images of a storm over Mexico in August. This month, its second wave of images caught the first rainfall of Hurricane Florence.

“There’s a plethora of ground-based experiments that have provided an enormous amount of information, and that’s why our weather forecasts nowadays are not that bad,” said Simone Tanelli, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-investigator for RainCube.

“But they don’t provide a global view. Also, there are weather satellites that provide such a global view, but what they are not telling you is what’s happening inside the storm. And that’s where the processes that make a storm grow and/or decay happen.”

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