NASA to launch University of Michigan controlled satellite to improve hurricane forecasts

Posted at 8:37 PM, Dec 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-12 09:32:06-05

Update: launch was scrubbed for today due to an issue with the hydraulic pump. They will try to drop again on Tuesday, December 13 presuming engineers are able to fix the problems with the hydraulic pump.

Today, a revolutionary mission called CYGNSS or Cyclone Global Navigation System will lift off from Cape Canaveral. But instead of NASA being in charge, scientists at the University of Michigan will be in calling the shots.

In November, Hurricane Matthew explosively intensified, surprising forecasters, before it slammed into Haiti.

While forecasts of where a hurricane will go have gotten much more accurate the last twenty years, there are still often large forecast errors in how strong the storm will be when it hits.

But about five years ago, two U of M professors, Chris Ruf and Aaron Ridley, hatched a plan to change that.

Today, a rocket will deploy eight small satellites, or microsats, each no bigger than a kitchen microwave, about 300 miles above earth. They'll use signals from a GPS navigation satellite, which easily get through heavy rain, to measure waves on the ocean's surface. From that, winds can be very accurately measured.

These satellites will take 4 to 5 months to get into the exact right positions, spaced about 2,500 miles apart.

If one has to be slowed down, they'll tilt it at an angle, to increase drag and slow it down relative to the others. That's never been done before.

A prototype of the small satellites was put in a vacuum chamber to simulate the huge temperature variations in space, and it was shaken on a vibration machine to simulate launch.

A different microsat will fly over a hurricane every 12 minutes, able to take 4 measurements per second, much more than we can gather now.

Simulations show that forecasts of Matthew would have been much better if these satellites had been flying.

Hurricane forecast centers around the world are anxious to get their hands on much improved intensity forecasts:

This is the first mission that NASA has ever let a non-NASA center run, slated to be directed from U of M for five years, or however long the satellites last.

The eight satellites should be up and running for the start of the next hurricane season on June first, 2017.