NASA is Testing Tiny Satellites to Track Global Storms

NASA is Testing Tiny Satellites to Track Global Storms

RainCube could lead to some accurate forecasts by improving the weather models.

Weather Forecasting predicts the conditions of the atmosphere for a given location and time by making use of science and technology. Although humans have been doing this since forever, the formal efforts in this domain began in the 19th century. Experts gather quantitative data about the current state of the atmosphere of a region and use meteorology to foresee the changes in the weather conditions. Prior to the technological advancement, only a handful of atmospheric features like cloud cover, barometric pressure, and current weather conditions were taken into consideration for weather forecasting. Contrary to that, advanced computer-based models are used nowadays which consider numerous factors while predicting the weather.

Despite all the technology, human input still plays a defining role in the accuracy of the results because the choice of the best possible forecast model is in the hands of the experts. There are a number of reasons which lead to an inaccuracy of weather forecasting. All of them explain why the accuracy of a weather forecast decreases when the difference between current time and the time for which the forecast is being made increases. That’s the reason why weather forecasts are updated at regular intervals. Recently, scientists made a progressive development in the field of weather forecasting which might significantly improve the accuracy of these forecasts in the future.

NASA has come up with the latest satellite called RainCube (Radar in a CubeSat) which has the ability to detect rain and snow with very small instruments. It allows this shoebox-size satellite to foresee storms. The first images from RainCube were received in August when it captured a storm over Mexico. Similarly, it caught the first rainfall of Hurricane Florence in September. The scientists behind this discovery hope that a fleet of RainCubes might improve the accuracy of weather forecasts in the future by monitoring severe storms in different parts of the world. Graeme Stephens, the Director of the Center of Climate Sciences at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA, talked about the significance of RainCube by saying,

We don’t have any way of measuring how water and air move in thunderstorms globally. We just don’t have any information about that at all, yet it’s so essential for predicting severe weather and even how rains will change in a future climate.”

The technology used for RainCube is in its experimental phase as the scientists want to see how a weather radar performs when it is shrunk into a miniature satellite. The working mechanism of RainCube can be related with bats because it uses radar to see things around it (bats use sonar). The umbrella-like antenna of the satellite sends out specialized radar signals, which bring back details about the storm. They hit the raindrops, extract useful information from them, and rebound back to the satellite. Eva Pearl, the Principal Investigator of the RainCube project, mentioned that it was a complex task to generate a strong enough signal from a small satellite. She explained the process in the following words:

The radar signal penetrates the storm, and then the radar receives back an echo. As the radar signal goes deeper into the layers of the storm and measures the rain at those layers, we get a snapshot of the activity inside the storm.”

Simone Tanelli, the Co-investigator of RainCube, told the world that a lot of ground-based experiments are quite accurate these days and this is signified by the fact that weather forecasts nowadays are not that bad. However, most of these observations don’t provide a global view. He elaborated that even the satellites with global scope are not telling us anything about the inside of the storm and this is where RainCube can prove extremely beneficial. The cost-friendliness of this satellite makes it financially viable to launch. As a result, a fleet of RainCubes can be spread around the globe to track storms and improve weather models. Stephens referred to that and said,

We actually will end up doing much more interesting insightful science with a constellation rather than with just one of them. What RainCube offers, on the one hand, is a demonstration of measurements that we currently have in space today. But what it really demonstrates is the potential for an entirely new and different way of observing Earth with many small radars. That will open up a whole new vista in viewing the hydrological cycle of Earth.”

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