NASA to Launch 6 Small Satellites to Monitor, Study Tropical Cyclones


NASA is launching the first two of six small satellites no earlier than June 12 that will study the formation and development of tropical cyclones almost every hour – about four to six times more often than is possible with current satellites. This is the first of three CubeSat launches for NASA’s Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission. The remaining satellites will be placed into their orbits during two subsequent launches this year. If successful, the TROPICS satellites will be spread across three orbital planes to cover more of the globe more frequently.

“TROPICS will give us very frequent views of tropical cyclones, providing insight into their formation, intensification, and interactions with their environment and providing critical data for storm monitoring and forecasting,” said Scott Braun, research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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.
Credits: NASA

Collectively, the weather satellites currently in low-Earth orbit – such as NOAA-20, the joint NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Suomi NPP satellite, and others from NASA’s partners – revisit a storm once every four to six hours. “So we’re missing a lot of what’s happening in the storm,” explained Bill Blackwell, principal investigator for the TROPICS mission and a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts. The TROPICS constellation will give scientists more frequent updates, complementing the data collected by existing low-Earth orbit weather satellites and allowing scientists to see each storm from beginning to end.

Three launches will place the six satellites in pairs across three slightly different low-Earth orbits, all at an angle near 30 degrees above the equator. This will maximize the amount of time the satellites spend passing over the part of Earth where most tropical cyclones form – a horizontal band stretching from about the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States to the southern coast of Australia, roughly between 38 degrees north and south latitudes. Ideally, one of the TROPICS satellites will pass over any given area within that band about once an hour.

All matter – including water vapor, oxygen, and clouds in the atmosphere – emits energy as heat and light, a phenomenon known as Planck’s Law. Each of the TROPICS satellites has an instrument called a microwave radiometer that measures these atmospheric emissions. The sensors make passive measurements similar to those made by the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) instruments on current low-Earth orbit weather satellites.

A graphic showing various wavelengths of light. The TROPICS satellites measure microwaves emitted by the atmosphere to create three-dimensional images of tropical cyclones.
Credits: NASA

The microwave radiometer aboard each TROPICS satellite measures microwave frequencies ranging from about 90 to 205 gigahertz. These frequencies tell scientists about the temperature, precipitation, moisture and other characteristics of the storm and surrounding atmosphere. The amount of heat and light – or radiance – at these frequencies comes from different altitudes, allowing the TROPICS satellites to create three-dimensional images of the cyclones’ environments. The frequencies TROPICS uses are also very sensitive to characteristics of ice and clouds, which will help meteorologists study how tropical cyclones develop and intensify. However, TROPICS’ frequencies are less sensitive to the temperature and moisture below the clouds – something the ATMS instruments aboard the NOAA-20 and Suomi-NPP satellites excel at. Together, the data from TROPICS and current weather satellites will help scientists refine their understanding of tropical cyclones.

“With the TROPICS constellation, we’ll have much more frequent observations of tropical cyclones, and in wavelengths that can help us understand thermodynamic structure in the eye and in the storm environment,” said Blackwell.

Both the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) instrument on the NOAA-20 satellite (left) and TROPICS Pathfinder (right) passed over Super Typhoon Mindulle on Sept. 26, 2021. The TROPICS satellite measures a frequency of 205 gigahertz, which provides a new view of tropical cyclones that hasn’t been used by previous satellites.
Credits: NASA/NOAA

If all goes according to plan, the six TROPICS satellites will join the TROPICS Pathfinder satellite, a proof-of-concept CubeSat that launched in June of 2021. Since then, the pathfinder has captured images of several tropical cyclones, such as Hurricane Ida over the United States, Cyclone Batsirai over Madagascar, and Super Typhoon Mindulle over eastern Japan. The pathfinder satellite has also provided the TROPICS research team with an opportunity to fine tune the satellites’ software and operational procedures before the constellation launches. In addition, the pathfinder has already been calibrated and will be able to serve as a calibration reference for the rest of the TROPICS satellites. That would help the TROPICS CubeSats start producing useful data quickly.

“The TROPICS team is super excited to get the constellation up and running, especially after the pathfinder’s success,” said Blackwell.

Banner image caption: An image of Tropical Cyclone Batsirai over Madagascar captured by the TROPICS Pathfinder satellite in February of 2022. Banner image credit: NASA

By Sofie Bates

NASA’s Earth Science News Team

Last Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Editor: Sofie Bates

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June 11, 2022 4:02 am

Cube sats?

I was super excited when I recently acquired a Marshall MS2 Micro Amp

The instruments include a Strat and a Black Beauty

Reply to  fretslider
June 11, 2022 7:46 am

Cube ? My Rolland Cube and Les Paul go well…

Bryan A
Reply to  DMacKenzie
June 13, 2022 9:29 am

Unfortunately the second stage failed to ignite and the satellites were not deployed

Reply to  Bryan A
June 13, 2022 6:28 pm

Bryan A is correct here’s a bit more info.

Two TROPICS CubeSats lifted off atop an Astra Rocket 3 from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida yesterday, June 12, 2022. Launch occurred at approximately 1:43 p.m. EDT. Things seemed to be going well at first, but after a nominal first stage flight, the upper stage of the rocket shut down early and failed to deliver the TROPICS CubeSats to orbit.

Boulder Skeptic
Reply to  fretslider
June 12, 2022 9:23 am

Cubesats are based on a 10cm x 10cm x 10 cm cube volume which is called 1U (1 unit). So a 3U cubesat is 3 of these cubes in size or is 30cm x 10cm x 10cm. Slightly larger than a loaf of bread. The spacecraft is comprised of a bus (provides electricity, heat, pointing, etc) and the payload sensor that measures the storms. The high level idea is to get better temporal data to better observe the storm development and also possibly improve forecasting of storm evolution and potential path. Major improvements in storm behavior knowledge are possible which would reduce cost of preparing for them and reducing the resulting damage costs. The instrument is essentially doing what the ATMS instrument on Suomi-NPP does which does not do a very good job of providing the temporal data since there is only one. Seven of these 3U TROPICS spacecraft cost on the order of $20 million including the bus and the payload sensor, as opposed to Suomi-NPP which cost over a $Billion for the bus and 5 instruments. So, better hurricane/tropical storm forecasting (reducing costs and saving lives) for about 1.5 orders of magnitude reduction in cost. The main goal is really weather knowledge (short-term), not climate knowledge (long-term) with these. This post is my own opinion and not in any official capacity, however, I was the Bus Program Manager and lead Systems Engineer on the TROPICS spacecraft at a small Boulder, CO, aerospace company; built on-time and on-budget to a fixed price contract. This is the future of space exploration and space science whether it is Earth Observing or deep space. This is a big deal in breaking the cycle of behemoth programs that cost huge amounts and take forever to field and get launched. Full disclosure, I was also the Command & Data Handling subsystem lead on Suomi-NPP.

joe x
June 11, 2022 4:39 am

launch all the satellites you want, you will find nothing. what a waste of money.

Reply to  joe x
June 11, 2022 8:48 am

Hurricanes are nothing.
Minute by minute updated Sat weather maps are nothing.
Watching a storm come your way is nothing.
Real time updates to weather forecasts are nothing.
Advance warning. Ha – We don’t need no steenkin’ advance warning.

I have a browser button set to the GEOS 16 maps. Set to the region I am in.
Very nice, indeed.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.

You are actually a bit late, truth to tell.
You Luddites went out of fashion back with the 19th century.

June 11, 2022 4:53 am

I thought we had GOES 16 and 17 parked permanently over both coasts that allows constant monitoring of both oceans and the GOM. They were sold to us as being able to provide a lot more data on tropical storms than previous satellites, although GOES 17 had an immediate failure on some of its sensors right after launch.

I assume these are supposed to provide more information that will allow better track and intensity forecasting although that would remain to be seen. The destructive wind part of a hurricane generally isn’t that wide but the amount of rain one of these can drop can be devastating over much larger areas. The one thing about all this is the storm will do what the storm will do regardless so when one is coming your way, get out.

June 11, 2022 5:19 am

Why is NASA doing this? Isn’t NOAA supposed to be the weather agency?

Reply to  DHR
June 11, 2022 5:53 am

Yep. But having multiple agencies doing pretty much the same thing can soak up a lot of taxpayer funds and keep the “scientists” employed.
No other benefit that I can see outside that. Typical gubmint overkill with our money.

Reply to  RevJay4
June 11, 2022 6:49 am

Also, a different instrument can give a higher wind speed and when tacked-on to the previous measurements thus “prove” that Global Warming is causing an increase in the intensity of tropical cyclones.

I’d bet big bucks that the new satellites will produce higher wind speed measurements than previously-used sensors.

Boulder Skeptic
Reply to  ScarletMacaw
June 12, 2022 9:37 am

If you think there is some conspiracy in this case, which I read into your words, I’ll take your bet. The idea to get these up there now is to overlap data from existing instruments and calibrate out any differences so that it’s apples-to-apples data. The TROPICS mission is primarily to improve tropical storm science knowledge and prediction (think weather). There are also ground truth targets that can be used over time and help ensure data measurement drift doesn’t fool people into trends that don’t exist. So the sensors will not be the problem. Once the data are on the ground and processed, well, that’s potentially a different (political) problem.

Boulder Skeptic
Reply to  RevJay4
June 12, 2022 9:30 am

See my post above.

“Seven of these 3U TROPICS spacecraft cost on the order of $20 million including the bus and the payload sensor, as opposed to Suomi-NPP which cost over a $Billion for the bus and 5 instruments. So, better hurricane/tropical storm forecasting (reducing costs and saving lives) for about 1.5 orders of magnitude reduction in cost. The main goal is really weather knowledge (short-term), not climate knowledge (long-term) with these.”

“This is a big deal in breaking the cycle of behemoth programs that cost huge amounts and take forever to field and get launched.”

Boulder Skeptic
Reply to  DHR
June 12, 2022 9:28 am

NOAA typically fields satellites with the help of a NASA center that knows spacecraft and the space environment. But yes, there is some inefficiency in the management layers in this model (from my personal experience as a contractor on past NOAA/NASA programs).

June 11, 2022 5:54 am

Speaking of satellites, we have UAH temperature data sets, absolutely incomparable.
Put out by Dr. Roy Spencer’s group.
Anybody know if there is trouble over there with that group?
The temperature products are as follows:
Lower troposphere
Mid troposphere
Lower stratosphere

for the last two months, updates to the data sets have been slow and incomplete.
Usually very reliable, now sporadic.
If anybody has an email address for that group, perhaps they could inquire and see if something is up?

Reply to  TonyL
June 11, 2022 10:23 am

I occasionally look at his blog, have not noticed anything unusual.
May temperature were published on 1st June

Coeur de Lion
June 11, 2022 6:04 am

I’ve just been reading AR6 Guidance For Policymakers where the usual link between ‘a warming globe’ and the frequency and intensity of tropical revolving storms is made against the evidence. There’s also a new Hockey Stick! See Steve McIntyre on this. Dishonesty

Old Man Winter
June 11, 2022 9:54 am

Since “glow-bull warming” & “climate change” weren’t mentioned**, their goal is more frequent
weather data- hourly vs 4-6 hrs- “in wavelengths that can help us understand thermodynamic
structure in the eye and in the storm environment“. These “frequencies are less sensitive to the
temperature & moisture below the clouds– something the ATMS instruments aboard the NOAA-20 &
Suomi-NPP satellites excel at.” This should improve storm forecasting weather models- something
“real world” that can actually be useful.

** Hopefully, Sofie doesn’t get a “dressing down” for not meeting NASA’s GW fear porn minimums!

Boulder Skeptic
Reply to  Old Man Winter
June 12, 2022 9:48 am

Well done reading carefully. You have nailed the purpose of this project—weather forecasting, not long-term climate focused. And it was done for about 50x less cost, and less than half the time of fielding another Suomi-NPP type spacecraft (having been intimately involved in both at two different aerospace companies). Yes, this one may actually be useful, a very good value, and I felt good working on it.

A lot of others on this specific thread seemed to just trot out a knee-jerk, uninformed, pessimism (as opposed to healthy skepticism).

June 11, 2022 10:46 am

Why would NASA launch new satellites with microwave sounding units when they don’t believe the data that the existing satellites show?

Has NASA ever explained why the tropical tropospheric hot spot doesn’t exist? I don’t think so. It is predicted by radiative theory to be the “fingerprint” of human CO2 emission, yet their instruments cannot find it. So their instruments must be bad, just as the Argo floats were.

June 11, 2022 4:22 pm

oh boy ! just what we need.
I can’t wait to see how much more hyperventilating the flapping lips subject us to
every hurricane season when these new toys go online.

June 12, 2022 11:05 am

Unfortunately, an anomaly in the upper stage prohibited it from making orbit.

Reply to  Ossqss
June 12, 2022 11:25 am

ASTRA has a miserable record of success. Just 2 for 5 of actual attempts of launch of a satellite. Lost 2 others PLUS one on the pad destroyed by fire.

Clay Sanborn
June 12, 2022 3:55 pm

The launch failed to get the sats into orbit.

Reply to  Clay Sanborn
June 13, 2022 4:49 pm

NASA TROPICS Satellites Destroyed as Astra Rocket Fails To Reach Orbit

June 13, 2022 7:05 pm

Not sure if this will show up in anyone’s feed – but the first two satellites launched today. Then promptly burned up in the atmosphere when the Astra vehicle failed just before attaining orbital velocity.

For once, not Elon’s fault. Trusting this to a company that has had only a half dozen successful launches total was idiotic. (This was the tenth launch for Astra – the last two failed, and a couple of earlier ones.)

Greg Goodman
June 14, 2022 2:50 am

If all goes according to plan …

Oh well, scratch that. It didn’t. Rocket failed to deliver to low earth orbit and NASA lost another two satellites. Maybe they are backing the wrong horse.

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