More Eyes in the Skies for Hurricanes

Hurricane Florence churns over the Atlantic Ocean close to the US coast, viewed from the space station, Image by Getty Images

Producers in the southeastern U.S. are still in recovery mode following calamitous hurricanes in 2018. Hurricanes Florence and Michael caused extensive damage to crops, livestock, farmsteads and communities. And, the year before, hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma wreaked havoc as well. The destructive power of these tropical systems means that any forecasting tool available to better predict their actions and intensity is more than welcome.


To that end, a new collection of lower-altitude satellites was launched this summer to offer more details on hurricane formation. The satellite project is called the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate-2, or COSMIC-2. It consists of a suite of six satellites that were built under the guidance and overseeing of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The satellites were launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in late June.

The six COSMIC-2 satellites are each about the size of a kitchen stove. Total cost of all six is about $75 million. This low-level satellite project has partnering from the U.S. Air Force along with Taiwan.


A testing period of about seven months will go by before the COSMIC-2 mission officially becomes active, so the new mission will not be offering analysis information for the 2019 hurricane season. But, once this group of satellites is operational, it is expected that COSMIC-2 will offer meteorologists data about air temperature, pressure and humidity precisely over the tropical storm and hurricane formation sweet spot--the equatorial region of Earth. That location is between 40 degrees north latitude and 40 degrees south latitude. The new mission will provide particularly detailed information about how those characteristics change at different altitudes in this corridor.

To do so, the spacecraft will use a technique called radio occultation. The COSMIC-2 orbiters are tuned to pick up signals produced by GPS satellites. But, the atmosphere distorts these signals as they travel toward Earth. COSMIC-2 orbits at a lower altitude than GPS satellites and can measure the signal distortion caused by the intervening atmosphere.


This data, combined with measurements taken by a host of other weather satellites, will help scientists understand what’s going on in Earth’s atmosphere. And, since tropical storms form in this region, the information collected will then be added into the array of data used to prepare computer forecast models. Better data offers the likelihood of improving the model output, and thus offering improvements in the forecasts.

The main objective of the additional COSMIC-2 network information is the ability to detect developing hurricanes earlier. There is also the prospect of further improvement in predicting the track that an individual hurricane will take. This will be a good project to keep track of.

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