SpaceX launches ‘small but mighty’ weather satellite sensor led by Colorado State University

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The TEMPEST-D2 and COWVR instruments are in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft launched to the International Space Station in December 2021. Credit: SpaceX

Shortly after completing a successful three-year missiona tiny identical satellite sensor developed by researchers at Colorado State University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is back in orbit – and scientists are optimistic about the observations it will produce.

About half the size of a cereal box, the ‘small but powerful’ sensor fitted with new remote sensing technology could be a game-changer for weather forecasting, according to a Release from NASA’s JPL.

SpaceX launched the sensor known as TEMPEST-D2 (Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical Systems – Demonstration #2) to the International Space Station as part of a Space Force mission called the Space Test Program- Houston 8, or STP-H8. The recently launched sensor is a copy of the original TEMPEST-D which orbited for three years and demonstrated for the first time the ability to collect state-of-the-art multi-frequency global weather data from a dictionary-sized satellite.

The TEMPEST-D2 sensor, produced alongside the first, is a technology demonstration to show the feasibility of smaller, low-cost, low-power satellite systems like TEMPEST-D for collecting critical data for weather forecasting.

TEMPEST-D Promise

Professor Steven Reising poses with a model of the original TEMPEST-D satellite
Steven Reising, professor of electrical and computer engineering, holds a model of the original TEMPEST-D satellite.

During its three-year mission in low Earth orbit, TEMPEST-D has proven its potential to keep pace with larger and more expensive satellites currently used for weather forecasting. The compact instrument has collected scientifically useful global data and exquisite weather images from several hurricanes and typhoons.

Steven Reising, professor of electrical and computer engineering, led the successful and groundbreaking mission, with co-investigators Professors V. Chandrasekar, electrical and computer engineering, and Christian Kummerow, atmospheric science. They worked in partnership with JPL, Blue Canyon Technologies and NASA Wallops Flight Facility.

Six months after it was deorbited, scientists are still counting on TEMPEST-D.

When the U.S. Department of Defense turned to Reising’s collaborators at JPL looking for new technologies to improve weather forecasting and environmental monitoring, they settled on the second TEMPEST-D sensor created in the event problem with the original instrument.

Now the second TEMPEST-D is in space on the STP-H8 mission. Only this time it works on the International Space Station alongside another sensor no bigger than a mini-fridge called the Compact Ocean Wind Vector Radiometer, or COWVR.

Synergistic Duo

Together, the two instruments strive to prove their worth and pave the way for a new generation of weather forecasting.

TEMPEST-D2 primarily measures precipitation and atmospheric humidity, while COWVR detects wind speed and direction over the ocean surface. The synergy between advanced instruments should broaden our understanding of the atmosphere and the ocean and their interactions in the Earth system.

“If COWVR and TEMPEST perform well, they will prove that comprehensive data vital for weather forecasting and better understanding of climate can be obtained in a much smaller package at a much lower price than previously thought,” said the agency said last month in a Release.

The sophisticated pair will circle our planet in low Earth orbit approximately 16 times a day for the next three years. While both sensors are designed for use on small satellites, the International Space Station allows this mission to send data back to Earth faster than before. They use NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite – the system used by astronauts to enable constant communication with ground facilities – to help scientists monitor storms in near real time.

Reising, who has embarked on a new NASA-funded project to advance his cutting-edge research, is optimistic that TEMPEST-D2 will perform as expected.

“We have gained confidence from the success of TEMPEST-D, and we couldn’t be happier to be back in space,” Reising said. “We expect this mission to help usher in what was previously unimaginable: innovative constellations of small satellites for remote sensing of the Earth.”

Faithful mission team

CSU alumni also contribute to the STP-H8 mission through their roles with JPL. Staff engineer Dr. Sharmila Padmanabhan played a lead role in the development of the TEMPEST-D sensor, and radar scientist Dr. Joe Turk reviews the capability of COWVR and TEMPEST-D2 for precipitation estimation. Padmanabhan and Turk launched their careers in remote sensing under the guidance of Reising and Chandrasekar as well as ECE Emeritus Professor Viswanathan Bringi.

“The COWVR/TEMPEST duo will be in orbit concurrently with NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s central global precipitation satellite,” Turk said. “This provides a unique opportunity to assess the ability of the instruments to contribute to more frequent satellite observations of global precipitation, to maintain and further improve global precipitation datasets widely used in the hydrometeorological community.”

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