New NASA program may help with extreme weather prediction

In many parts of the world, hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones are a key consideration for building design professionals. The more we know about these storms and their behavior, the better we can design buildings and structures to be safe and resilient in extreme weather conditions.NASA’s new Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), expected to launch next year, promises to dramatically improve our ability to predict extreme weather phenomena, like hurricanes and typhoons, which cause an estimated $1.8 billion in storm damage per event.

CYGNSS, a suite of eight microsatellites carried into orbit on a single launch vehicle, will essentially “listen in” on existing GPS data to measure surface wind speeds in Earth’s oceans. As the constellation of satellites orbits the earth, it will compare the signals that it receives directly from GPS satellites to those that reflect off the earth’s surface. The comparative technique, known as bistatic scatterometry, lets scientists infer what the wind speeds are at the surface of the oceans themselves.

Each CYGNSS microsatellite observatory weighs less than 30 kilograms (66 pounds) and measures less than 160 centimeters (63 inches) in its longest dimension. The constellation of eight satellites will be able to measure 32 wind measurements per second across the globe, primarily in tropical and subtropical regions.

Image courtesy University of Michigan

The data will provide valuable information about the formation and intensification of tropical cyclones. Using these results, hurricane forecasters will be able to more accurately predict the intensity and tracks of hurricanes and typhoons as they develop. Unlike other remote sensing techniques, bistatic scatterometry observations can penetrate the intense precipitation of a cyclone’s eye wall and inner rain bands, providing significantly better information than is currently available.

It’s estimated that tropical cyclone forecasting has improved by about 50 percent in the last 30 years, mainly due to better modeling and simulation techniques. Scientists hope that the CYGNSS mission will improve the observational data used as inputs to the computer models. Mission leaders plan to start delivering data to scientists as early as 2017.

We’re excited to have more accurate data available to architects and engineers who design buildings that may be affected by extreme winds.

CYGNSS is a joint effort between NASA; the University of Michigan Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Space Sciences; the Southwest Research Institute, Surrey Satellite Technology US LLC, and Sierra Nevada Corporation.