UW researchers part of new NASA mission to study tropical cyclones

March 14, 2016 | Jean Phillips


CONTACT: Ralf Bennartz, bennartz@me.com; Chris Velden, chris.velden@ssec.wisc.edu; Liam Gumley, liam.gumley@ssec.wisc.edu


UW researchers part of new NASA mission to study tropical cyclones

Researchers at the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC), University of Wisconsin-Madison, are part of an investigation team selected by NASA to put new scientific instruments in low-Earth orbit to study the development of tropical cyclones. The award will bring $3.2 million to UW-Madison over a 5-year period.

The Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) investigation will develop and launch a constellation of nanosatellites called CubeSats to study the development of tropical cyclones through rapid sampling of the atmosphere.

Ralf Bennartz, SSEC senior scientist and principal investigator for the UW-Madison portion of the program, will be joined by co-investigators Chris Velden and Liam Gumley, also of SSEC. Together, they bring extensive expertise in ground-based and space-borne remote sensing techniques and observations as a means to improve understanding of complex atmospheric processes that influence Earth’s climate.

“This research is significant because tropical cyclones pose a very real hazard to millions of people around the world who live near coastal regions,” says Bennartz, who is also a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. And while advances in satellite and other observing systems have led to better understanding of tropical cyclone evolution, including predictions of storm motion and track, he says there is much more to be learned about storm intensity prediction.

Scanning microwave radiometers on each small satellite will allow scientists to measure precipitation, humidity, temperature, and cloud properties and collect more information on the rapidly-evolving structure and intensity of tropical cyclones.

“Right now we have geostationary satellites that provide rapid image sampling, but in the visible and infrared only, and polar orbiters that carry microwave-sensing instruments but pass over a given region just once every 12 hours,” said Velden, “so the idea was to bring these two sampling strategies together to increase our observations and knowledge of tropical cyclone dynamics.”

With microwave observations as often as every 20 minutes over the tropical areas of the planet, “scientists will be able to peer into the cloudy storms and observe rapidly changing convective structures that can signify intensity changes,” says Velden. “Ultimately, this new information can lead to improved forecasts.”

Building on SSEC’s history with developing complex ground systems to receive satellite data, Gumley will lead the ground system segment of the TROPICS mission. “The system will receive data from space,” says Gumley, “and products developed with those data, along with the raw data, will be sent to NASA for archiving and redistribution.”

TROPICS will consist of 12 CubeSats, each about one foot long and weighing less than 8.5 pounds. The CubeSats will be launched into three separate orbital planes.

The overall TROPICS mission is led by William Blackwell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory. In addition to Blackwell and UW-Madison collaborators, the TROPICS team includes partnerships with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, several universities, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The TROPICS mission is one of two experiments competitively selected from 14 proposals submitted to NASA’s Earth Venture Instrument-3 program. NASA has instituted these small, innovative science investigations as a means to complement its larger missions and address pressing Earth science research problems.


Jean Phillips

Featured image: For the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) investigation, 12 small CubeSats will study the development of tropical cyclones by taking measurements of temperature, precipitation and cloud properties as often as every 20 minutes. Credit: MIT Lincoln Laboratory.