NASA has been visiting space since the 1950s when it was created. One of its earliest missions was to launch space satellites to communicate with stations on Earth. In 2022, the federal aerospace agency will launch six small satellites called “smallsats” to observe tropical storms on Earth. It will help scientists understand the physical aspects of cyclones and how to predict them with greater accuracy. Here’s a deeper look at how satellite communication will help scientists learn about storms in the face of increased environmental challenges.
Exploring Earth’s Tropical Zone from Space
Earth’s tropical zone essentially exists within a 40-degree latitude span around the equator. This zone is where Puerto Rico suffered $43 billion in infrastructure damage due to Hurricane Maria in 2017. Haiti, which was also devastated by a hurricane, is located 20 degrees north of the equator, while Bolivia is located 20 degrees south of the equator. Researchers have observed that warmer climates are making cyclones in the tropical zone worse, which is part of what triggered the TROPICS mission.
The constellation of space satellites that NASA is planning to launch will be part of the TROPICS mission designed to study tropical storms. TROPICS is an acronym for Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats. NASA is funding the project, which is led by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Other collaborators include NOAA and various university and industry partners.
Measuring a Cyclone’s Evolution
Once the constellation is launched, the satellites will communicate with each other to deliver observations of a storm’s development along with measurements of precipitation, temperature, and humidity. The measurements come from passive microwave (PMW) sounder instruments. NASA will receive these reports nearly every hour. It will help scientists analyze how storms manifest from start to finish and better understand storm intensification factors.
The instruments operate at various frequencies to take specific measurements including 206 GHz for cloud ice, allowing analysts to observe how cloud characteristics affect storm structure and intensity. Cloud precipitation is measured at 90 GHz while water vapor is measured through 3 channels near 183 GHz. The images generated by TROPICS satellite equipment provide enhanced resolution and other advancements that improve meteorology.
Scientists will monitor how these storms evolve using instruments with sensors that provide measurements every 30 to 60 minutes. These observations will be more frequent than those used in the past on other missions to monitor cyclones from satellites.
The constellation is referred to as 6 CubeSats 3U, which will take measurements similar to X-rays, allowing analysts to see through layers to observe an underlying structure. Each CubeSat is about a foot long and weighs 11.8 pounds. Microwave radiometers will be the tools that measure cloud properties, along with temperature, humidity, and precipitation.
Preparing for the Launch
A TROPICS pathfinder satellite was launched on June 30, 2021 to allow complete testing and data processing of the communications technology. The testing will prepare for next year’s constellation launch and ensure data flows to application users seamlessly. NASA will launch the six satellites in a series of three phases with the first beginning January 8, 2022. The final phase will be completed by the end of July.
TROPICS is part of a larger NASA program called Earth System Science Pathfinder (ESSP), which plans to use remote-sensing missions to gain deeper knowledge about Earth’s systems. It will put scientists in a better position to meet global challenges caused by climate change.
With the help of space satellites, NASA scientists will expand their knowledge base of Earth’s natural processes and prediction capabilities of severe weather resulting from climate change. It’s yet another example of how technology can help facilitate solutions to problems presented to humans by nature. Ultimately, data communications through space, and the resulting analysis of that data, are what will contribute to improvements in the quality and safety of life on Earth for all.