Pathfinder satellite paves the way for a constellation of tropical storm watchers | MIT News


The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most brutal on record, producing an unprecedented 30 named storms. Additionally, a record 10 of those storms were characterized as rapidly intensifying – some choking at 100 miles per hour in less than two days.

To provide more consistent monitoring of the tropical belt of Earth where these storms form, NASA launched a test satellite, or pathfinder, past a constellation of six weather satellites called TROPICS (Time resolved observations of precipitation structure and storm intensity with a constellation of small satellites).

Scheduled for launch in 2022, the TROPICS satellites will work together to provide almost hourly microwave observations of storm precipitation, temperature and humidity – a revisit time for these measurements currently not possible with d ‘other satellites.

“These storms are affecting a lot of people, and we expect that with the increase in observations on a single storm from TROPICS, we will be able to improve the forecast, which translates into helping people get up to speed. safe earlier, protect assets and overall improve the national economy, ”said William Blackwell, TROPICS principal investigator and associate head of the Applied Space Systems group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

Six years ago, Blackwell submitted TROPICS as a proposal to NASA’s Earth Venture Instrument program and received funding. The program provides for innovative, science-driven and cost-effective missions to solve pressing problems in the earth sciences.

The TROPICS mission will be among the first to use a constellation of small satellites for a global and rapid view of tropical storms. Since tropical cyclones and hurricanes can change rapidly as they cross the ocean, increased observations from TROPICS satellites will not only advance the science of understanding storm intensity, they could also improve weather forecasting. ‘intensity.

“As a long-time Floridian, I have seen with my own eyes the devastating impact hurricanes can have on our communities. And as climate change makes hurricanes even stronger, it is more important than ever that the NASA and our partners are investing in missions like TROPICS to better track and understand extreme weather conditions, “says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.” NASA’s innovation strengthens data models that help scientists improve forecasting storms and understanding the factors that fuel these monstrous storms TROPICS will help do just that, and we look forward to the launch next year of the TROPICS satellite constellation.

How a team of small satellites will help NASA study storms

The project also promises to spur the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s constant improvements in weather and hurricane forecasts by introducing new environmental data into their numerical weather forecasting models, said Frank Marks, director of the hurricane research division. from the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

Once all six satellites are launched, “this new constellation will provide high-frequency temperature and humidity surveys as we investigate how hurricanes interact with surrounding temperature and humidity – key data that could improve forecasts. hurricane intensity, ”Marks said.

A critical step in the preparation of the constellation was the launch on June 30 of a pathfinder satellite, a seventh identical copy of the small TROPICS satellites. The pathfinder will allow full testing of technology, communication systems, data processing and data flow for application users before the constellation is launched. This will allow time to adjust the ground system and data products, thus helping to ensure the success of the TROPICS mission.

“The TROPICS Pathfinder satellite is similar to a screening before the opening night of a big show,” says Nicholas Zorn, the Pathfinder program manager at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. “Its mission is end-to-end real-world testing, from environmental verification to integration, launch, ground communications, commissioning, calibration, operations and data processing. Any areas of improvement identified along the way can be strengthened before the constellation launches. “

On board every small TROPICS satellite is an instrument called a microwave radiometer, which detects the temperature, humidity and precipitation in the atmosphere. On today’s weather satellites, microwave radiometers are about the size of a washing machine. On the small TROPICS satellites, the radiometers are about the size of a coffee cup.

Microwave radiometers work by detecting thermal radiation naturally emitted by oxygen and water vapor in the air. The TROPICS instrument measures these emissions via a rotating antenna at one end of the satellite. The antenna listens to 12 microwave channels between 90 and 205 gigahertz, where the relevant broadcast signals are strongest. These channels pick up signals at different heights in the lowest layer of the atmosphere, or troposphere, where most weather conditions occur.

The Lincoln Lab has been striving to miniaturize microwave radiometers over the past decade, spurred by the invention of CubeSats, loaf-sized satellites that are economical to launch. This work has been an ongoing collaboration between Blackwell and MIT Associate Professor Kerri Cahoy of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. TROPICS builds on the joint success of this team in 2018 by launching the first microwave radiometer on a CubeSat to collect atmospheric profiling data. The instrument onboard TROPICS ‘six satellites has been upgraded to provide improved sensitivity, resolution and reliability and will perform more focused and faster weather observations.

“This is an amazing technology that we have proven that allows us to maximize the science from the size factor of the instrument. To achieve this, it took the contribution of so many people,” said Blackwell.

The TROPICS scientific team includes researchers from MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory; NOAA National Hurricane Center; NOAA’s National Satellite, Data and Environmental Information Service; University of Miami; Colorado State University; Vanderbilt University; and the University of Wisconsin. The University of Massachusetts Amherst, Texas A&M University, and Tufts University have contributed to the development of the technology. Maverick Space Systems provided integration services for the Pathfinder, which was launched from SpaceX’s Transporter 2 mission. Astra Space Inc. provides launch services for the constellation. NASA’s Kennedy Space Center-based Launch Services Program purchased and operated the Tropics Pathfinder Launch Service.

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