CLOSE

A Group of Suitcase-Sized Satellites Will Transform Hurricane Tracking

Screenshot from "CYGNSS Overview," NASA Langley Research Center

Earlier this month, NASA launched a constellation of small satellites that will transform hurricane forecasting and enable new insights into storm formation and activity. Called the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), eight spacecraft, each the size of a carry-on suitcase, are flying over the tropics to measure and map ocean winds. Because of their altitude, heavy rain and storm surges are no obstacles to the satellites, and when hurricanes form, the spacecraft will be able to peer through walls of water into the storm’s core and continue to collect data—something no space-based system has ever done before.

“CYGNSS is a tool that will provide us 24/7 coverage of the tropical cyclone zone. It will improve our knowledge of how hurricanes grow so that we can better prepare and protect people in the path of each hurricane as it comes,” Christine Bonniksen, CYGNSS program executive with the Science Mission Directorate's Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters, tells mental_floss.

THE RAIN BARRIER HAS BLOCKED OUR VIEW

Over the past several decades, there has been a steady improvement in storm track forecasting—or where storms will hit—and the National Hurricane Center’s error rate is half of what it was 20 years ago. The same cannot be said for storm intensity forecasting—how strong these storms will be. “If you look at the record for their intensity forecast, there has been very, very little improvement in the last 20 years,” said Chris Ruf, the principal investigator on the CYGNSS mission and a scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. One of the primary reasons for this is that today’s satellites are unable to measure what’s going on in the inner core of hurricanes. “This has been identified for many years as a primary lacking ingredient in the numerical forecasts that are used by the National Hurricane Center. They wish they had information on the inner core of the storms and they don’t.”

Storm cores have so far been impenetrable because current wind-observing spacecraft cannot see through rain. This is because their on-board instruments emit signals at an 8-millimeter wavelength—about the same size as a large raindrop. When the signals encounter rain, they are simply scattered and absorbed. (Hurricane paths depend on environmental factors outside of the storm, which is why this rain shroud has not been an impediment to predicting where storms will hit.)

Additionally, it takes about three days for current systems to collect data to build a map of global wind speeds and precipitation. This is a big problem if you’re trying to track the rapid intensification of tropical storms and hurricanes, which can happen in a matter of hours. So until now, scientists have had to rely on so-called “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft to fly into the storm to perform wind speed reconnaissance.

THE CYGNSS SOLUTION

CYGNSS changes all of this by using GPS satellite signals, which were designed to penetrate heavy rains. GPS operates at a 19-centimeter wavelength—more than long enough to avoid rain interaction. When GPS satellite signals hit the ocean, they reflect back into space and are received by CYGNSS observatories. Think about the way the Moon reflects on a placid lake: When the lake is calm, the Moon's image is sharp. When the wind blows, the water roughens and the image diffuses. CYGNSS relies on a similar principle, reading the clarity of the GPS signals to reveal the characteristics of the wind. It measures the strength of the GPS signal as it scatters off the ocean surface to determine wind speed.

The eight CYGNSS observatory spacecraft operate evenly in a single orbital plane around the Earth. Each satellite has a payload called a Delay Doppler Mapping Instrument, a GPS receiver capable of tracking four different GPS signals simultaneously. Two antennas look down at reflected GPS signal and take measurements of the diffuse scattering, and from those derive the wind speed and activity. Meanwhile, one antenna looks up and receives a direct GPS satellite signal for geolocation. In essence, each 65-pound satellite is doing the work of four Hurricane Hunter airplanes. Collectively, CYGNSS is like a squadron of 32 such planes flying continuously over the tropics taking simultaneous measurements.

The system gives a total refresh of the entire tropical wind distribution map every seven hours, even under heavy precipitation. In a hurricane or tropical storm—including in areas with the highest wind speeds and the most powerful surges—CYGNSS can immediately answer questions about the storm size, intensity, and the reach of its strong winds. Moreover, because the satellite constellation has such expansive coverage of the Earth, it can collect massive amounts of data on the entire storm environment. There are three different data downlink points around the world, and the data can be downloaded from the satellites within the hour—an unprecedented timeframe.

HOW THE LAUNCH WENT DOWN

CYGNSS launched on the morning of December 15, 2016 from Cape Canaveral with the help of a Pegasus rocket, an air launch system. The rocket was mounted to the bottom of an L-1011 airplane called Stargazer that took off from a runway, just like any other plane you’ve ever seen. At 39,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, the plane released the Pegasus rocket, which ignited five seconds later and powered its way into space. The fairings hatched away and the deployment vehicle separated, and the eight small satellites released themselves in pairs over 30-second intervals. Ten minutes after separation, their solar arrays deployed. They then moved into position in orbit and began operation.

By 4:12 pm ET that same day, the CYGNSS team had successfully made contact with all eight satellites. "It is an amazingly rewarding feeling to spend such an intense and focused time working on CYGNSS and then, in a matter of just a few hours, have the entire constellation suddenly come to life," Ruf said in a brief mission update. "I am excited (and a little exhausted) and really looking forward to diving into the engineering data in the coming days, and then into the science data in the weeks to follow."

This is NASA’s flagship Earth Venture–class mission, which is a new NASA program designed for low-cost, high-technology suborbital (think aircraft and balloons) and orbital (CYGNSS) projects. Two previous missions of this class were aircraft designed for atmospheric research and communications. This is the first spaceborne Earth Venture endeavor. Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado runs CYGNSS mission operations, and science operations are run from the University of Michigan. The primary $160 million mission will run for two years—enough time to fill in blank spots in the hurricane dataset, get a grip on how storm cores intensify, and hopefully refine the forecast models that lives depend on.  

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
Space
Were You Meant to Be an Astronaut? Try Passing NASA's Project Mercury Intelligence Test
From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
From left: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, Christopher Craft of the Mercury Operations Division, Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and Alan Shepard.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1958, NASA launched Project Mercury, its first manned space program. To have a manned space program, of course, it had to have astronauts. The men who would take part in the six Mercury flights were the first of their kind—in fact, the project even introduced the word "astronaut" as the term for American space explorers.

How did NASA choose the men for the team? Through a rigorous battery of tests, according to Popular Science, that measured their physical, psychological, and intellectual fitness for the job. The magazine recently recreated a small subset of those tests that you can take to see just how fit you might have been for the project.

The five tests Popular Science excerpts are only a fraction of what finalists had to endure. Out of 508 military pilots initially screened for inclusion, NASA hoped to find six astronauts who were the healthiest, smartest, most committed, and most psychologically stable men they could locate. After months of testing, they had such a hard time narrowing it down that they ended up choosing seven instead. Here’s how NASA describes just a small sliver of the process:

In addition to pressure suit tests, acceleration tests, vibration tests, heat tests, and loud noise tests, each candidate had to prove his physical endurance on treadmills, tilt tables, with his feet in ice water, and by blowing up balloons until exhausted. Continuous psychiatric interviews, the necessity of living with two psychologists throughout the week, and extensive self-examination through a battery of 13 psychological tests for personality and motivation, and another dozen different tests on intellectual functions and special aptitudes—these were all part of the week of truth.

In the end, seven were left: Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton. Could you have been one of them? Well, you may not be able to test out your endurance in a pressure suit, but you can take a few of the psychological tests, including ones on spatial visualization, mechanical comprehension, hidden figures, progressive matrices, and analogies.

To test your skills, head over to our pals at Popular Science.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
technology
7 Giant Machines That Changed the World—And 1 That Might
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

From a 17-mile-long particle accelerator to a football-field–sized space observatory, here are seven massive machines that have made an equally huge impact on how we build, how we observe our universe, and how we lift rockets into space. We've also included a bonus machine: a technological marvel-to-be that may be just as influential once it's completed.

1. LARGE HADRON COLLIDER

Large Hadron Collider
Carlo Fachini, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator located at CERN outside of Geneva, Switzerland, is the largest machine in the world: It has a circumference of almost 17 miles and took around a decade to build. The tubes of the LHC are a vacuum; superconducting magnets guide and accelerate two high-energy particle beams, which are moving in opposite directions, to near-light-speed. When the beams collide, scientists use the data to find the answers to some of the most basic questions of physics and the laws that govern the universe we live in.

Since the LHC started up in 2008, scientists have made numerous groundbreaking discoveries, including finding the once-theoretical Higgs boson particle—a.k.a. the "God" particle—which helps give other particles mass. Scientists had been chasing the Higgs boson for five decades. The discovery illuminates the early development of the universe, including how particles gained mass after the Big Bang. Scientists are already working on the LHC's successor, which will be three times its size and seven times more powerful.

2. CRAWLER-TRANSPORTER ROCKET MOVERS

Built in 1965, NASA's crawler-transporters are two of the largest vehicles ever constructed: They weigh 2400 tons each and burn 150 gallons of diesel per mile. In contrast, the average semi truck gets roughly 6.5 miles per gallon. The vehicles' first job was to move Saturn V rockets—which took us to the moon and measured 35 stories tall when fully constructed—from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (the largest single-room building in the world) to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The 4.2-mile trip was a slow one; the transporters traveled at a rate of 1 mph to ensure the massive rockets didn't topple over. Without a vehicle to move rockets from the spot they were stacked to the launch pad, we never could have gotten off the ground, much less to the moon.

After our moon missions, the crawler-transporters were adapted to service the Space Shuttle program, and moved the shuttles from 1981 to 2003. Since the retirement of the orbiters, these long-serving machines are once again being repurposed to transport NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS), which, at 38 stories tall, will be the biggest rocket ever constructed when it's ready, hopefully in a few years (the timeline is in flux due to budgetary issues).

3. NATIONAL IGNITION FACILITY

National Ignition Facility (NIF) target chamber
Lawrence Livermore National Security, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Three football fields could fit inside the National Ignition Facility, which holds the largest, most energetic, and most precise laser in the world (it also has the distinction of being the world's largest optical instrument). NIF—which took about a decade to build and opened in 2009—is located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Its lasers are used to create conditions not unlike those within the cores of stars and giant planets, which helps scientists to gain understanding about these areas of the universe. The NIF is also being used to pursue the goal of nuclear fusion. If we can crack the code for this reaction that powers stars, we'll achieve unlimited clean energy for our planet.

4. BERTHA THE TUNNEL BORER

When Seattle decided it needed a giant tunnel to replace an aging highway through the middle of the city, the city contracted with Hitachi Zosen Corporation to build the biggest tunnel boring machine in the world to do the job. The scope of Bertha's work had no precedent in modern-day digging, given the dense, abrasive glacial soil and bedrock it had to chew through.

In 2013, Bertha—named after Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle's first female mayor—was tasked with building a tunnel that would be big enough to carry four lanes of traffic (a two-lane, double-decker road). Bertha needed to carve through 1.7 miles of rock, and just 1000 feet in, the 57-foot, 6559-ton machine ran into a steel pipe casing that damaged it. Many predicted that Bertha was doomed, but after a massive, on-the-spot repair operation by Hitachi Zosen that took a year-and-a-half, the borer was up and running again.

In April 2017, Bertha completed its work, and engineers started the process of dismantling it; its parts will be used in future tunnel boring machines. Bertha set an example for what is possible in future urban tunnel work—but it's unlikely that tunnel boring machines will get much bigger than Bertha because of the sheer weight of the machine and the amount of soil it can move at once. Bertha's tunnel is scheduled to open in 2019.

5. INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION

international space station
NASA

The international space station is a highly efficient machine, equipped with instrumentation and life support equipment, that has kept humans alive in the inhospitable environment of low-Earth orbit since November 2, 2000. It's the biggest satellite orbiting the Earth made by humans. The major components were sent into space over a two-year period, but construction has slowly continued over the last decade, with astronauts adding the Columbus science laboratory and Japanese science module. The first module, Zarya, was just 41.2 feet by 13.5 feet; now, the ISS is 356 feet by 240 feet, which is slightly larger than a football field. The station currently has about 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume the crew can move about in. That's about the same area as a Boeing 747 (though much of the ISS's space is taken up by equipment). The U.S.'s solar panels are as large as eight basketball courts.

From the space station, scientists have made such important discoveries as what extended zero-G does to the human body, where cosmic rays come from, and how protein crystals can be used to treat cancer. Though NASA expects the most modern modules of the ISS to be usable well into the 2030s, by 2025 the agency may begin "transitioning" much of its ISS operations—and costs—to the private sector [PDF] with an eye on expanding the commercial potential of space.

6. LIGO GRAVITATIONAL WAVE DETECTOR

The Laser Inferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually made up of four different facilities—two laboratories and two detectors located 2000 miles apart, in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. The detectors, which took about five years to build and were inaugurated in 1999, are identical L-shaped vacuum chambers that are about 2.5 miles long and operate in unison. The mission of these machines is to detect ripples in the fabric of spacetime known as gravitational waves. Predicted in 1915 by Einstein's theory of general relativity, gravitational waves were entirely theoretical until September 2015, when LIGO detected them for the first time. Not only did this provide further confirmation of general relativity, it opened up entirely new areas of research such as gravitational wave astronomy. The reason the two detectors are so far from each other is to reduce the possibility of false positives; both facilities must detect a potential gravitational wave before it is investigated.

7. ANTONOV AN-225 MRIYA PLANE

Antonov An-225 in Paramaribo
Andrew J. Muller, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Russians originally had a rival to the U.S. Space Shuttle program: a reusable winged spacecraft of their own called the Buran—and in the 1980s, they developed the AN-225 Mriya in order to transport it. With a wingspan the size of the Statue of Liberty, a 640-ton weight, six engines, and the ability to lift into the air nearly a half-million pounds, it's the longest and heaviest plane ever built. Mriya first flew in 1988, and since the Buran was mothballed in 1990 after just one flight (due to the breakup of the Soviet Union rather than the plane's capabilities), the AN-225 has only been used sparingly.

The monster plane has inspired new ideas. In 2017, Airspace Industry Corporation of China signed an agreement with Antonov, the AN-225's manufacturer, to built a fleet of aircraft based on the AN-225's design that would carry commercial satellites on their backs and launch them into space. Currently, virtually all satellites are launched from rockets. Meanwhile, Stratolaunch, a company overseen by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is building a plane that will be wider (but not longer) than Mriya. The giant plane will carry a launch vehicle headed for low-Earth orbit.

BONUS: 10,000-YEAR CLOCK

This forward-thinking project, funded by Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, focuses on reminding people about their long-term impact on the world. Instead of a traditional clock measuring hours, minutes, and seconds, the Clock of the Long Now measures times in years and centuries. The clock, which will be built inside a mountain on a plot of land in western Texas owned by Bezos, will tick once per year, with a century hand that advances just once every 100 years. The cuckoo on the clock will emerge just once per millennium. Construction began on the clock in early 2018. When this massive clock is completed—timeline unknown—it will be 500 feet high. What will be the impact of this one? Only the people of the 120th century will be able to answer that question.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios