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These little satellites could bring big advances to tropical storm forecasts

Researchers want a better view of rapidly intensifying storms

Hurricane Ida is seen in an image taken aboard the International Space Station in August 2021.
Hurricane Ida is seen in an image taken aboard the International Space Station in August 2021.
Image: European Space Agency via NASA

NASA is gearing up to launch tiny satellites into space that will help forecasters keep a closer eye on tropical storms as they develop in a mission called TROPICS. Crucially, if the launches are successful, the satellites will mark a big advancement in our ability to watch rapidly intensifying storms.

At the moment, NASA’s weather satellites can only check in on a storm every four to six hours. “So we’re missing a lot of what’s happening in the storm,” Bill Blackwell, principal investigator for the TROPICS mission and a researcher at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, said in NASA’s announcement yesterday.

Images of storms taken from current weather satellites.
Images taken from current weather satellites. Both the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) instrument on the NOAA-20 satellite (left) and TROPICS Pathfinder (right) passed over Typhoon Mindulle on September 26, 2021.

The new set of six satellites NASA plans to launch should shrink that timeframe significantly, giving researchers updates about every hour. The agency expects to launch the first two satellites as early as June 12th, with two more launches scheduled for later in the year.

The satellites are headed for low Earth orbit, where they’ll circle the globe at an angle about 30 degrees above the equator. That will put them in the perfect place to peer over the areas where most tropical cyclones are born, ranging from the United States’ mid-Atlantic region to Australia’s southern coast.

Each satellite is just under a foot long and equipped with a powerful instrument that’s about as big as a cup of coffee. The instrument, a mini microwave radiometer, can measure heat and light emanating from oxygen and water vapor in the air. The frequencies measured by the TROPICS satellites will give researchers and forecasters even more insight into how a storm develops and strengthens. They’ll even be able to craft 3D images of the environment fueling a particular storm.

With more frequent observations from these satellites, scientists hope to better understand how tropical storms grow and intensify. As climate change encourages conditions that can supercharge hurricanes, there’s evidence that storms in the Atlantic are intensifying more rapidly. When that happens, like last year when Hurricane Ida exploded overnight before ravaging Louisiana, forecasters and first responders are left scrambling to get people to safety.

That makes it all the more important to have more reliable eyes over the skies. “The TROPICS team is super excited to get the constellation up and running,” Blackwell said in yesterday’s NASA statement.