Newly Launched CYGNSS Microsatellites To Study Hurricane Intensity, Provide Better Forecasts

December 15, 2016 – Hurricane forecasters will soon have a new tool to better understand and forecast storm intensity. A constellation of eight microsatellites, called NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System mission, or CYGNSS, got a boost into Earth orbit at 6:37 a.m. MST today, December 15, 2016, aboard an Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The unique, air-launched vehicle was carried aloft by Orbital’s modified L-1011 aircraft, “Stargazer,” which took off from the Skid Strip runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and deployed the three-stage Pegasus XL rocket at a predetermined drop point 39,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean and about 110 nautical miles east-northeast of Daytona Beach. A NASA F-18 chase plane from Armstrong Flight Research Center in California provided visual contact and video of the conjoined Stargazer aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket.

The CYGNSS constellation of eight satellites is a NASA Earth System Science Pathfinder Mission that will collect space‐based measurements of the inner core of tropical cyclones. The CYGNSS constellation will provide scientists and meteorologists with the data necessary to improve tropical cyclone forecasting and tracking methods.

Sierra Nevada Corporation designed the deployment module for the mission — essentially a tube that held all eight satellites in two rows with four satellites around the tube. When the rocket was at the right altitude, the deployment module started up, deploying pairs of satellites in opposite directions.

The first pair of CYGNSS micro satellites deployed 13 minutes after launch, with the rest releasing in pairs every 30 seconds.

“The deployments looked great — right on time,” said John Scherrer, CYGNSS Project Manager at the Southwest Research Institute and today’s CYGNSS mission manager.

Each satellite came off the deployment module with a speed of about 1 m/s (about 2 miles per hour) with respect to the deployment module, which was orbiting at a speed of about 7,600 m/s (about 17,000 MPH).

“When the first two [observatories] came off, I started feeling good,” said CYGNSS Principal Investigator Chris Ruf of the University of Michigan. “When the last two came off, it felt fantastic. The orbit is right on the money of what we’ve been modeling.”

The team expects to begin getting science data next week, Ruf said. There will be a one- to two-month commissioning phase in which each microsatellite will be checked out and maneuvered into its final position.

The CYGNSS constellation is expected to be operational in time for the 2017 hurricane season.

The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio built the CYGNSS micro satellites. SwRI will host the mission operations center at its Boulder, Colorado location.