Tiny Satellites Could Improve Climate and Weather Tracking
Matthew Greenwood posted on October 05, 2018 |

A satellite small enough to fit into a backpack could help scientists track weather systems with greater accuracy. Named RainCube, the satellite could be deployed right into the heart of storms to gather data.

Existing climate and weather models rely on data from satellites in orbit. These satellites cannot provide that data fast enough, or with sufficient detail, to observe how weather patterns develop—especially when those patterns could be changing by the minute.

A constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit could orbit much closer to the weather systems they are studying, but the cost and time frame of typical satellite platforms and instruments would make this solution prohibitive.

"We don't have any way of measuring how water and air move in thunderstorms globally," said Graeme Stephens, director of NASA’s Center of Climate Sciences. "Yet it's so essential for predicting severe weather and even how rains will change in a future climate."

That is where a technology like the RainCube comes in. A network of small and inexpensive satellites could get close to the weather systems they are studying—and could potentially revolutionize climate science and weather forecasting.

RainCube weighs about 26 pounds and features an umbrella-like 1.6-foot antenna that sends out chirps, or specialized radar signals, into a storm. The signals bounce off raindrops and send back a picture of what the storm looks like from the inside.

Engineers had to figure out a way to help a small spacecraft send a signal strong enough to peer into a storm. "The radar signal penetrates the storm, and then the radar receives back an echo," said RainCube principal investigator Eva Peral. "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."

RainCube is an experiment to see if shrinking a weather radar into a low-cost, miniature satellite could still provide a real-time look inside storms. Because the spacecraft is miniaturized, it would be more energy-efficient and cheaper to launch—which means many more of them could be sent into orbit, working together to track storms in real time—and eventually improve weather models that predict the movement of rain, snow, sleet and hail. 

Early tests of the RainCube show promise. The satellite transmitted its first images of a storm over Mexico in August as part of a technology demonstration. Its second set of images in September caught the first rainfall of Hurricane Florence.

The RainCube has the potential to not only help chart storms in unprecedented detail—according to Stephens, it could lead to “an entirely new and different way of observing Earth.”

Read more about developments in satellite technology at Small Satellites Can Make Big Discoveries.

Recommended For You