The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), in partnership with the University of Michigan and NASA, will launch an array of satellites in November that will provide the most detailed observations of the inner core of hurricanes ever collected. Thursday morning it unveiled the satellites and its deployment module to reporters at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Since 1990, forecasts of hurricane courses improved by about 50% because of better data sets, including those from satellites. In that time, however, scientists still struggled with predicting hurricanes’ strength. NASA’s new CYGNSS mission (Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System) will use eight satellites in a coordinated constellation to monitor and predict rapid changes in hurricane intensity.

CYGNSS will launch in November, deployed from a Pegasus launch vehicle which drops off a high flying airplane before firing into the upper atmosphere. For a gut-wrenching five seconds, CYGNSS will drop like a stone from the aircraft before its initial boosters ignite to bring the devices to their intended orbit. From there, all eight mini-satellites will separate from the module and adjust their speed slightly to get into the proper formation.

Dr. Chris Ruf, CYGNSS principal investigator, was asked if he regarded the device’s launch as the light at the end of a tunnel.

“All the preparations have taken a long time, but I don’t consider this the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I consider it the beginning of the real work.”

Dr. Chris Ruf explains the data collection technique for the CYGNSS satellites. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Dr. Chris Ruf explains the data collection technique for the CYGNSS satellites.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

CYGNSS, unlike previous hurricane monitoring methods, can accurately measure wind speed from Earth’s orbit. The satellites can determine the intensity of the wind from the roughness of the water, which they gather by measuring how scattered the GPS signals that reflect off of the ocean’s surface are. The measurements are taken continuously as the CYGNSS constellation orbits the planet, and they are completely unaffected by the intense rainfall that has made hurricane measurements difficult in the past.

The only way to get accurate wind speeds from hurricanes now is to fly a plane with special sensors on board – nicknamed Hurricane Hunters – straight into the eye of the storm. Apart from danger and expense, planes aren’t optimal because they’re rarely deployed to the Pacific Ocean, where cyclones and typhoons crash against Australia and Asia. CYGNSS will take the same amount of constant data globally, improving storm predictions and potentially saving lives all over the world.

Each of the eight satellites weighs around 65 pounds and operates on less than 60 watts, which is comparable to a dim light bulb. The program cost around $150 million and will operate between two and six years. Data will be gathered every hour of every day.

The satellites were designed and built in San Antonio at the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering division. The mission is hardly the first NASA project that SwRI has taken on. Its hardware on Juno is currently orbiting Jupiter and has already yielded amazing scientific discoveries like the first evidence of heat created from acoustic waves and canyons filled with liquid methane on Titan.

SwRI also worked on New Horizons, which passed Pluto last year and provided the first detailed photographs of the former planet,  revealing flowing pools of liquid nitrogen and a thin blue atmosphere. The institute even created the tempur aircraft brake pads that evolved into Tempur-Pedic mattresses.

The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) will help improve hurricane track, intensity and storm surge forecasts. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) will help improve hurricane track, intensity, and storm surge forecasts. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Space Science and Engineering is just one of ten divisions at the institute. It also work on fuels, lubricants, ballistics and explosives, autonomous vehicles, and chemical engineering, among other subjects. In total, it employs more than 1700 San Antonians with an additional 70 workers based in Boulder, Colo. The facility in Boulder will function as operational headquarters for the implementation of the CYGNSS mission.

Every piece of data from every NASA Earth Science mission is offered free of charge to anyone who seeks it, and the hurricane data from CYGNSS will be no exception.

“From the viewpoint of science, the more people you have looking at it, the better we understand the planet we’re jointly living in,” said Christine Bonniksen, NASA’s Earth Sciences division program director.

That means the city of Houston will become safer just as impoverished towns in the Philippines will.

“CYGNSS is the first earth science program in orbit for us,” she said. “This is an amazing mission that truly affects everyone here on Earth.”

Top image: NASA’s CYGNSS mini-satellites will collect wind speed data directly over the eye of cyclones. Photo courtesy of NASA.

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.