Microsatellites for hurricane patrols were placed in space by an Orbital ATK rocket on Thursday, part of a $157 million mission to measure storms by using GPS signals.
A total of eight microsatellites from NASA's Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System will make regular measurements of the ocean surface winds through the life of tropical storms and hurricanes, said NASA.
The flight was delayed for a day but then cleared to launch on Thursday, sending the satellites 317 miles into space before they were released, two at a time, said CBS News. The microsatellites will be spaced about 3,000 miles apart in orbit and will be able to judge wind speeds based on how navigational signals are affected by the water's roughness.
"This is going to be looking at hurricanes, it's going to be focusing on the surface winds, which is the area of highest dynamic energy in a hurricane, which helps influence how intense the hurricane's going to be," said Christine Bonniksen, CYGNSS program executive at NASA headquarters. "We're hoping to learn through this mission information to better understand how those hurricanes grow and intensify."
Paul Voosen of Science magazine said for years the only way to gauge the wind speed of hurricanes was to send an aircraft inside the storm.
"Until now, the United States has relied on its 'hurricane hunter' aircraft to measure storm winds," said Voosen. "But the limited range of these planes means they cannot reach many hurricanes, especially as they are forming over the tropical Atlantic Ocean. And cyclones in the western Pacific Ocean, which differ from hurricanes in name only, rarely get monitored at all."
The new satellite system will be able to measure the winds speed of all storms by gathering GPS signals after they bounce off the ocean, noted Science magazine. GPS signals are seen as more accurate than current weather satellites because they rely on microwave-based sensors, which get scrambled by rain.
Michael Kozar, a hurricane modeler at Risk Management Solutions in Tallahassee, told Science that the satellites could give researchers a more complete picture of hurricanes, helping to measure not just a storm's highest winds, but the overall energy spread throughout its system.
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