Science

How a Squad of Small Satellites Will Help NASA Study Storms


Hurricanes are some of the most powerful and destructive weather events on Earth. To help study these powerful storms, NASA is launching TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats), a collection of 6 small satellites designed to measure storm strength by detecting the thermal radiation naturally emitted by the oxygen and water vapor in the air. In June 2021, NASA launched a test version of the satellite, called a pathfinder, ahead of the constellation of six weather satellites planned for launch in 2022. When launched, the TROPICS satellites will work together to provide near-hourly microwave observations of a storm’s precipitation, temperature, and humidity. The mission is expected to help scientists understand the factors driving tropical cyclone intensification and to improve forecasting models.

Video Transcript:

Here’s a question. How does a group of satellites, each no more than a foot long, help improve forecasts for tropical storms and hurricanes?

Let’s take a look.

Hurricanes are some of the most powerful and destructive weather events on Earth.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the most brutal on record, producing a record-breaking 30 named storms.

What’s more, a record-tying 10 of those storms were characterized as rapidly intensifying, some throttling up by 100 miles per hour in under two days.

Many weather satellites will generally measure a storm only once every few hours, leaving gaps in coverage where a storm may quickly strengthen.

To help fill this observation gap, NASA is launching TROPICS; a collection of 6 small satellites designed to make a big impact on our understanding of damaging storms.

Their mission: to provide near-hourly observations of a storm’s precipitation, temperature, and humidity, allowing scientists to better understand what drives a storm’s intensification.

To achieve this, researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory developed a miniaturized microwave radiometer that’s about the size of a cup of coffee.

This small instrument will measure storm strength by detecting the thermal radiation naturally emitted by the oxygen and water vapor in the air.

As Earth’s climate continues to change, cost-effective, but powerful, satellites like TROPICS will be an important tool to help us better observe developments driving rapid changes in powerful storms.

And help forecasters better predict – and prepare – for the weather ahead.





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