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New Weather Instrument To Hitch a Ride on Space Station

In a high-flying example of recycling, NASA recently announced plans to combine leftover hardware from a now-defunct satellite with new equipment in order to improve scientists’ ability to monitor ocean winds around the world.

Rather than building an entirely new, autonomous satellite, which could cost up to $1 billion or more, the agency is planning to attach the refurbished instrument to the International Space Station (ISS). Once it is safely attached, the instrument will not require any interaction with the Space Station crew, NASA said in a press release.

Scatterometer-derived winds showing tropical storm force (yellow) and hurricane force (red) winds from Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 28, 2012. 
Click on the image to enlarge. Credit: University of Wisconsin.

The main beneficiaries of the new instrument will be scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who will use the data to monitor tropical storms and hurricanes as well as other weather conditions that can pose hazards for mariners, and NASA atmospheric scientists as well.

The instrument is known as a scatterometer, and the new ISS-RapidScat will help fill the gap left when NASA’s previous wind-monitoring satellite, known as “QuickScat,” stopped working in 2009 after operating for eight years longer than its design lifetime. NOAA meteorologists have been relying on data from other space-based scatterometers that have more limited geographical coverage in the meantime, such as ASCAT, operated by the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites.

A scatterometer is a microwave radar sensor used to measure the reflection, or scattering effect, produced while scanning the surface of Earth. The ISS-RapidScat will scan the surface of the oceans and infer information about wind speeds based on how energy is reflected back from the water.

According to NASA, ISS-RapidScat will have similar capabilities to QuickScat once it is launched to the Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft, and installed at the end of the station’s Columbus laboratory.

James Franklin, chief of forecast operations at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the new scatterometer will benefit hurricane tracking and forecasting, particularly when it comes to detecting storms in their formative stages.

Image of scatterometer-derived winds associated with Hurricane Ivan on Sept. 9, 2004.
Credit: NASA.

“It sounds like a very clever plan to us and we are going to be very eager to see the data,” he said in an interview. “It just kind of fell into our lap.”

Franklin said the new scatterometer data will not result in significant improvements to hurricane forecasting, but it will help with storm monitoring.

“This is nice, this is good, this is clever, it looks like it’s going to be cost effective . . . (but) it’s not going to revolutionize hurricane forecasting,” he said.

The ISS-RapidScat instrument is expected to remain in service for at least two years.

NASA is heralding its approach as a cost-conscious move in a fiscally conservative climate.

“The ability for NASA to quickly reuse this hardware and launch it to the space station is a great example of a low-cost approach that will have high benefits to science and life here on Earth," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's International Space Station program manager, in a press release.

NASA’s do-it-yourself solution to the scatterometer data contrasts with the difficulty that NASA, NOAA and other agencies have had in trying to keep a far more complex next-generation fleet of polar-orbiting satellites on schedule and on budget. NOAA’s weather forecasters are preparing for a gap in polar satellite coverage starting sometime in 2017 and lasting for at least one year. If that occurs, NOAA has warned Congress and the White House that the accuracy of weather forecasts, particularly medium-range forecasts, will be less accurate than they are today. 

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