Satellites From San Antonio-based Institute Drawing Interest After A Year In Space

Jun 5, 2018

Hurricane season is here, and for the second season NASA scientists will measure hurricanes using satellites built by San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute.


The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System was riding a Pegasus rocket into space.

“Observatories D and E have been successfully deployed,” said a NASA controller to a room erupting in applause.

Two by two, the carry-on luggage sized satellites, jettisoned from the rocket streaking across Earth’s exosphere.

“Congratulations, CYGNSS good hunting,” said the controller before signing off.

Hunting hurricanes is the prime CYGNSS mission. Measuring GPS signals bouncing off the Earth to calculate wind speed. With CYGNSS scientists could peer inside a hurricane from space, something heavy rain had prevented in the past.

SwRI engineers construct one of the CYGNSS spacecrafts
Credit NASA

CYGNSS was the first spacecraft SwRI had ever built. It was unusual for a couple reasons: At $151 million dollars, it was about one-tenth the cost of a traditional satellite, like the GOES-R that launched the month before. And it’s a constellation, meaning there are eight separate micro-satellites, which is a big number for the small team running operations.

“It’s kind of grueling especially in the first months after launch because there’s no pause button,” said William Wells, SwRI senior engineer.

He helped write the proposal and was in flight operations after launch.

“They require constant attention. It’s kind of like having kids,” he said. “It’s like having octuplets, having a constellation of eight spacecrafts. Early on there’s definitely a lack of sleep.”

Engineers were broken into two teams scheduled for shifts of 12 hours. But those shifts often ended up going 16-22 hours. For instance, after launch, they had one satellite with a critical issue they spent 14 hours trying to correct while neglecting the other seven.

But after their first hurricane season, the data has spawned new research and lots of interest.

“We hit a homerun on the science payload,” Wells said.

The project can improve forecasting intensity and storm surge, which was an area scientists said had marginally improved in the last 50 years. By “adding in the CYGNSS data as an additional input to the forecast model to see the impact on forecast skill” there has been a “significant positive impact,” said Chris Ruf, University of Michigan professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, who is also principal investigator on the project.

CYGNSS has to prove itself to forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before they start using it for predictions. Last year went a long way towards that goal.

“We couldn’t really ask for a better proving ground for calibrating and testing,” Ruf said.

Chris Ruf inspects a CYGNSS satellite in 2015.
Credit Bob Allen / NASA

It will be at least another year before they consider using the data for forecasts, but that isn’t stopping other scientists from doing new investigations based on the findings.

More journal articles and more scientists from more disciplines are using the data, Ruf said.

NASA added more scientists to analyze CYGNSS land data to explore things like how flooding can be mapped in real time. Scientists are looking at how CYGNSS can be used to measure crop stress and agricultural planning, as well as improve continental weather forecasts.

“All three of those are being looked at now by new investigations that have been added to the CYGNSS project since last summer,” Ruf said.

Ultimately, the concept of CYGNSS is in ways as important as the science, Ruf said, as a constellation of micro-satellites doing pioneering work at a fraction of the cost.

“Because you can apply this to not just GPS satellites,” agreed Tim Lang, NASA research scientist.

His team measures other day to day tropical weather with CYGNSS data. He says the project’s novel approach of measuring already present communication could have an impact on future projects.

“I have seen research that shows, for example, your DirectTV signal,” he said. “You can take that and turn that into a measurement of sea level and watch the tides come in.”

The science community is years from understanding the ultimate impact of the small CYGNSS satellites, he said.

Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org or follow him on Twitter @paulflahive