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A Tiny Satellite Studies Stormy Layers

A Tiny Satellite Studies Stormy Layers


The gif above shows data taken by an experimental weather satellite of Hurricane Dorian on September 3, 2019. TEMPEST-D, a NASA CubeSat, reveals rain bands in four layers of the storm by taking the data in four different radio frequencies. The multiple vertical layers show where the most warm, wet air within the hurricane is rising high into the atmosphere. Pink, red and yellow show the areas of heaviest rainfall, while the least intense areas of rainfall are in green and blue.

How does an Earth satellite the size of a cereal box help NASA monitor storms? 


The goal of the TEMPEST-D (Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical Systems Demonstration) mission is to demonstrate the performance of a CubeSat designed to study precipitation events on a global scale.

If TEMPEST-D can successfully track storms like Dorian, the technology demonstration could lead to a train of small satellites that work together to track storms around the world. By measuring the evolution of clouds from the moment of the start of precipitation, a TEMPEST constellation mission, collecting multiple data points over short periods of time, would improve our understanding of cloud processes and help to clear up one of the largest sources of uncertainty in climate models. Knowledge of clouds, cloud processes and precipitation is essential to our understanding of climate change.

What is a CubeSat, anyway? And what’s the U for?

CubeSats are small, modular, customizable vessels for satellites. They come in single units a little larger than a rubix cube – 10cmx10cmx10cm – that can be stacked in multiple different configurations. One CubeSat is 1U. A CubeSat like TEMPEST-D, which is a 6U, has, you guessed it, six CubeSat units in it.


Pictured above is a full-size mockup of MarCO, a 6U CubeSat that recently went to Mars with the Insight mission. They really are about the size of a cereal box!

We are using CubeSats to test new technologies and push the boundaries of Earth Science in ways never before imagined. CubeSats are much less expensive to produce than traditional satellites; in multiples they could improve our global storm coverage and forecasting data.

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