NASA Just Deployed a Fleet of Satellites From a Rocket Strapped to a Plane

CYGNSS will probe the depths of hurricanes with unprecedented accuracy.

Dec 15 2016, 5:08pm

GIF: NASAKennedy/YouTube

On Thursday morning at 8:37 AM EST, NASA successfully launched the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), a constellation of eight hurricane-watching satellites, from a rocket strapped to the underside of an airplane. Check out the high-flying maneuver for yourself in this footage of the much-anticipated event.

Video: NASAKennedy/YouTube

For five exhilarating seconds after it was jettisoned by the L-1011 Stargazer carrier jet, the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket was in freefall, at an altitude of 39,000 feet. After this brief skydive, its first booster fired up as planned, propelling the spacecraft onwards to low Earth orbit. Fourteen minutes and two engine burns later, Pegasus dropped off the CYGNSS payload 316 miles (508 kilometers) above the surface of the planet.

Video: NASA/YouTube

From there, the eight satellites kicked off from the delivery capsule in pairs and unfurled their solar-paneled wings, each measuring 5.48 feet (1.67 meters) across.


This $157 million NASA-sponsored mission was developed jointly by the University of Michigan and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. It was originally scheduled to blast-off on Monday, but was delayed for three days over irregularities in the hydraulic rocket release system, as well as bad weather.

The CYGNSS fleet is designed to probe the intensity of hurricanes and tropical cyclones with greater accuracy than ever before. The satellites can detect and measure scattered, reflected signals of GPS satellites as they bounce off the ocean surface through tumultuous natural disasters. The constellation can generate up to 32 wind measurements per second, providing an unprecedented look inside the cores of of the dangerous storms that form at tropical hurricane-belt latitudes.

READ MORE: Behind Patricia: How Climate Change Is Fueling the Strongest Storm Ever Recorded

"We can measure the wind outside of the storm cell with present systems," said climate specialist Chris Ruf, the principal investigator for the CYGNSS mission, in a NASA statement. "But there's a gap in our knowledge of cyclone processes in the critical eyewall region of the storm—a gap that will be filled by the CYGNSS data."

"The models try to predict what is happening under the rain, but they are much less accurate without continuous experimental validation," he said.

Given the extraordinary destructive power of hurricanes—and the role of climate change in exacerbating them—CYGNSS has a crucial role to play in terms of better understanding the formation, dynamics, and potential dangers of these extreme weather phenomena.

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