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Pathfinder satellite paves way for constellation of tropical-storm observers

Astronomy and Space

Pathfinder satellite paves way for constellation of tropical-storm observers

The project also holds promise to boost National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s steady improvements in weather and hurricane forecasts by feeding new environmental data into their numerical weather prediction models, says Frank Marks, director of the Hurricane Research Division of NOAA\’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.
After all six satellites are launched, \”this new constellation will provide high frequency temperature and humidity soundings as we seek to learn how hurricanes interact with the surrounding temperature and moisture environment — key data that could improve hurricane intensity forecasts,\” Marks says.
A critical step to preparing for the constellation was the launch on June 30 of a pathfinder satellite, a seventh identical copy of the TROPICS smallsats. The pathfinder will enable full testing of the technology, communication systems, data processing, and data flow to application users in advance of the constellation\’s launch. This will allow time for adjustments to the ground system and data products, helping ensure the success of the TROPICS mission.
\”The TROPICS Pathfinder satellite is similar to a screening before the opening night of a big show,\” says Nicholas Zorn, the pathfinder program manager from MIT Lincoln Laboratory. \”Its mission is a real-world, end-to-end test, from environmental verification through integration, launch, ground communications, commissioning, calibration, operations, and science data processing. Any areas for improvement identified along the way can be reinforced before the constellation launches.\”
Aboard each TROPICS small satellite is an instrument called a microwave radiometer, which detects temperature, moisture, and rainfall in the atmosphere. On current weather satellites, microwave radiometers are about the size of a washing machine. On TROPICS’ small satellites the radiometers are about the size of a coffee mug.
Microwave radiometers work by detecting the thermal radiation naturally emitted by oxygen and water vapor in the air. The TROPICS instrument measures these emissions via an antenna spinning at one end of the satellite. The antenna listens in at 12 microwave channels between 90 to 205 gigahertz, where the relevant emission signals are strongest. These channels capture signals at different heights throughout the lowest layer of the atmosphere, or troposphere, where most weather we experience occurs.
Lincoln Laboratory has been working to miniaturize microwave radiometers for the last decade, spurred by the invention of CubeSats, satellites the size of a loaf of bread that are economical to launch. This work has been an ongoing collaboration between Blackwell and MIT Associate Professor Kerri Cahoy of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. TROPICS builds on that team\’s joint 2018 success in launching the first microwave radiometer on a CubeSat to collect atmospheric profiling data. The instrument aboard the TROPICS\’ six satellites has been upgraded to provide improved sensitivity, resolution, and reliability and will make more targeted and rapid weather observations.
\”It is amazing technology that we have proven out that allows us to maximize the science from the instrument\’s size factor. To pull this off has taken contributions of so many people,\” Blackwell says.
The TROPICS science team includes researchers from MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory; NOAA National Hurricane Center; NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service; University of Miami; Colorado State University; Vanderbilt University; and University of Wisconsin. The University of Massachusetts Amherst, Texas A&M University, and Tufts University contributed to the technology development. Maverick Space Systems provided integration services for the Pathfinder, which was launched from SpaceX’s Transporter 2 mission. Astra Space Inc. is providing launch services for the constellation. NASA’s Launch Services Program based at Kennedy Space Center procured and managed the Tropics Pathfinder launch service.

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