NASA’s Experimental Hurricane Monitoring Fleet Launched by Pegasus rocket

Launch of the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft at 8:37 a.m. EST on Dec. 15, 2016.  Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer
Launch of the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft at 8:37 a.m. EST on Dec. 15, 2016. Credit: NASA TV/Ken Kremer

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s constellation of experimental hurricane monitoring CYGNSS microsatellites was successfully air launched by the unique Orbital ATK winged Pegasus rocket on Thursday, Dec 15 – opening a new era in weather forecasters ability to measure the buildup of hurricane intensity in the tropics from orbit that will eventually help save lives and property from impending destructive storms here on Earth.

The agency’s innovative Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) earth science mission was launched at 8:37 a.m. EST, Dec. 15, aboard a commercially developed Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket from a designated point over the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of Florida.

Officials just announced this morning Dec. 16 that the entire fleet is operating well.

“NASA confirmed Friday morning that all eight spacecraft of its latest Earth science mission are in good shape.”

“The launch of CYGNSS is a first for NASA and for the scientific community,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“As the first orbital mission in our Earth Venture program, CYGNSS will make unprecedented measurements in the most violent, dynamic, and important portions of tropical storms and hurricanes.”

An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2016 and successfully launches the spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 15, 2016 and successfully launches the spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Late Thursday, NASA announced that contact had been made with the entire fleet of eight small satellites after they had been successfully deployed and safely delivered to their intended position in low Earth orbit.

“We have successfully contacted each of the 8 observatories on our first attempt,” announced Chris Ruf, CYGNSS principal investigator with the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan.

“This bodes very well for their health and “status, which is the next thing we will be carefully checking with the next contacts in the coming days.”

The three stage Pegasus XL rocket housing the CYGNSS earth science payload inside the payload fairing had been carried aloft to 39,000 feet by an Orbital ATK L-1011 Tristar and dropped from the aircrafts belly for an air launch over the Atlantic Ocean and about 110 nautical miles east-northeast of Daytona Beach.

The Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS hurricane observing microsatellites  is attached to the belly of the Stargazer L-1011 as technicians work at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  It launched the payload to orbit on Dec. 15, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS hurricane observing microsatellites is attached to the belly of the Stargazer L-1011 as technicians work at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It launched the payload to orbit on Dec. 15, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The L-1011 nicknamed Stargazer took off at about 7:30 a.m. EST from NASA’s Skid Strip on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as the media including myself watched the events unfold under near perfect Sunshine State weather with brilliantly clear blue skies.

After flying to the dropbox point – measuring about 40-miles by 10-miles (64-kilometers by 16-kilometers) – the Pegasus rocket was dropped from the belly, on command by the pilot, for a short freefall of about 5 seconds to initiate the launch sequence and engine ignition.

Pegasus launches horizontally in midair with ignition of the first stage engine burn, and then tilts up to space to begin the approximate ten minute trek to LEO.

The rocket launch and satellite release when exactly as planned with no hiccups.

It’s a beautiful day, with gorgeous weather,” said NASA CYGNSS launch director Tim Dunn. “We had a nominal flyout, and all three stages performed beautifully. We had no issues at all with launch vehicle performance.”

Deployment of the first pair of CYGNSS satellites in the eight satellite fleet started just 13 minutes after launch. The other six followed sequentially staged some 30 seconds apart.

“It’s a great event when you have a successful spacecraft separation – and with eight microsatellites, you get to multiply that times eight,” Dunn added.

“The deployments looked great — right on time,” said John Scherrer, CYGNSS Project Manager at the Southwest Research Institute and today’s CYGNSS mission manager, soon after launch.

“We think everything looks really, really good. About three hours after launch we’ll attempt first contact, and after that, we’ll go through a series of four contacts where we hit two [observatories] each time, checking the health and status of each spacecraft,” Scherrer added several prior to contact..

CYGNSS small satellite constellation launch came after a few days postponement due to technical issues following an aborted attempt on Monday, when the release mechanism failed and satellite parameter issues cropped up on Tuesday, both of which were rectified.

NASA’s innovative Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission is expected to revolutionize hurricane forecasting by measuring the intensity buildup for the first time.

“The CYGNSS constellation consists of eight microsatellite observatories that will measure surface winds in and near a hurricane’s inner core, including regions beneath the eyewall and intense inner rainbands that previously could not be measured from space,” according to a NASA factsheet.

CYGNSS is an experimental mission to demonstrate proof-of-concept that could eventually turn operational in a future follow-up mission if the resulting data returns turn out as well as the researchers hope.

The CYGNSS constellation of 8 identical satellites works in coordination with the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation.

The eight satellite CYGNSS fleet “will team up with the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation to measure wind speeds over Earth’s oceans and air-sea interactions, information expected to help scientists better understand tropical cyclones, ultimately leading to improved hurricane intensity forecasts.”

They will receive direct and reflected signals from GPS satellites.

“The direct signals pinpoint CYGNSS observatory positions, while the reflected signals respond to ocean surface roughness, from which wind speed is retrieved.”

This schematic outlines the key launch events:

Schematic of Orbital ATK L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket air drop launch of NASA’s CYGNSS microsatellite fleet.  Credit: Orbital ATK
Schematic of Orbital ATK L-1011 aircraft and Pegasus XL rocket air drop launch of NASA’s CYGNSS microsatellite fleet. Credit: Orbital ATK

The $157 million fleet of eight identical spacecraft comprising the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) system were all delivered to low Earth orbit by the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The nominal mission lifetime for CYGNSS is two years but the team says they could potentially last as long as five years or more if the spacecraft continue functioning.

Artist's concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space.  Credits: NASA
Artist’s concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space. Credits: NASA

Pegasus launches from the Florida Space Coast are infrequent. The last once took place over 13 years ago in late April 2003 for the GALEX mission.

Typically they take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or the Reagan Test Range on the Kwajalein Atoll.

An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
An Orbital ATK L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft carrying a Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS spacecraft takes off from the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CYGNSS counts as the 20th Pegasus mission for NASA and the 43rd mission overall for Orbital ATK.

The CYGNSS spacecraft were built by Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The solar panels and spacecraft dispenser were built by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

Each one weighs approx 29 kg. The deployed solar panels measure 1.65 meters in length.

The solar panels measure 5 feet in length and will be deployed within about 15 minutes of launch.

“We are thrilled to be a part of a project that helps gain better hurricane data that can eventually help keep a lot of people safe, but from a business side, we are also glad we could help SwRI achieve their mission requirements with better performance and lower cost and risk,” said Bryan Helgesen, director of strategy and business development for Space Technologies in SNC’s Space Systems business area, in a statement.

Rear view into the first stage engine of Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket that will launch NASA's CYGNSS experimental hurricane observation payload on Dec. 14, 2016. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Rear view into the first stage engine of Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket that will launch NASA’s CYGNSS experimental hurricane observation payload on Dec. 14, 2016. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Space Physics Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor leads overall mission execution in partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department at the University of Michigan leads the science investigation, and the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate oversees the mission.

The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  Credits: Photo credit: USAF
An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credits: Photo credit: USAF

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CYGNSS Constellation of Hurricane Monitoring MicroSats Set for Dec. 12 Launch – Watch Live

Artist's concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space.  Credits: NASA
Artist’s concept of the deployment of the eight Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite observatories in space. Credits: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – An exciting new chapter in hurricane monitoring and forecasting intensity prediction is due to open Monday morning at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center when a new constellation of microsatellites dubbed CYGNSS are slated to be deployed from an air-launched Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The fleet of eight identical spacecraft comprising the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) system will be delivered to Earth orbit by an Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket.

The Pegasus/CYGNSS vehicle is attached to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer carrier aircraft.

“The CYGNSS constellation consists of eight microsatellite observatories that will measure surface winds in and near a hurricane’s inner core, including regions beneath the eyewall and intense inner rainbands that previously could not be measured from space,” according to a NASA factsheet.

The data obtained by studying the inner core of tropical cyclones “will help scientists and meteorologists better understand and predict the path of a hurricane.”

Improved hurricane forecasts can help protect lives and mitigate property damage in coastal areas under threat from hurricanes and cyclones.

The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Attached beneath the Stargazer is the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board, being processed for launch on Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CYGNSS is an experimental mission to demonstrate proof-of-concept that could eventually turn operational in a future follow-up mission if the resulting data returns turn out as well as the researchers hope.

The Pegasus XL rocket with the eight observatories are tucked inside the nose cone will be air-launched by dropping them from the belly of Orbital’s modified L-1011 carrier aircraft, nicknamed Stargazer, after taking off from the “Skid Strip” runway at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

If all goes well, the rocket will be dropped from Stargazer’s belly for the launch currently planned for Monday, Dec. 12 at 8:24 a.m. EST.

Five seconds after the rocket is deployed at 39,000 feet, the solid fueled Pegasus XL first stage engine with ignite for the trip to low earth orbit.

They will be deployed from a dispenser at an altitude of about 510 km and an inclination of 35 degrees above the equator.

Technician works on Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA's CYGNSS payload on board on Dec. 10, 2016 in this rear side view showing the first stage engine. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Launch is slated for Dec. 12, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technician works on Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket with NASA’s CYGNSS payload on board on Dec. 10, 2016 in this rear side view showing the first stage engine. They are mated to the bottom of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Launch is slated for Dec. 12, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launch window lasts 1 hour with the actual deployment timed to occur 5 minutes into the window.

NASA’s Pegasus/CYGNUS launch coverage and commentary will be carried live on NASA TV – beginning at 6:45 a.m. EDT

You can watch the launch live on NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

Live countdown coverage on NASA’s Launch Blog begins at 6:30 a.m. Dec. 12.

The weather forecast from the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral is currently predicting a 40% chance of favorable conditions on Monday Dec 12.

The primary weather concerns are for flight through precipitation and cumulus clouds.

The Pegasus rocket cannot fly through rain or clouds due to a negative impact on the thermal protection system.

In the event of a delay, the range is also reserved for Tuesday, Dec. 13 where the daily outlook increases significantly to an 80% chance of favorable weather conditions.

After Stargazer takes off from the Skid Strip early Monday morning around 6:30 a.m. EST, it will fly north to a designated point about 126 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida over the Atlantic Ocean. The crew can search for a favorable launch point if needed.

The rocket will be dropped for a short freefall of about 5 seconds. It launches horizontally in midair with ignition of the first stage engine burn, and then tilts up to space to begin the trek to LEO.

The $157 million CYGNSS constellation works in coordination with the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation.

The eight satellite CYGNSS fleet “will team up with the Global Positioning System (GPS) constellation to measure wind speeds over Earth’s oceans and air-sea interactions, information expected to help scientists better understand tropical cyclones, ultimately leading to improved hurricane intensity forecasts.”

They will receive direct and reflected signals from GPS satellites.

“The direct signals pinpoint CYGNSS observatory positions, while the reflected signals respond to ocean surface roughness, from which wind speed is retrieved.”

“Forecasting capabilities are going to be greatly increased,” NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn said at the prelaunch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 10. “As a Floridian, I will really appreciate that, certainly based on what we had to do this fall with Hurricane Matthew.”

Indeed the CYGNSS launch was delayed by Hurricane Matthew, just like the NASA/NOAA GOES-R launch was also delayed from early to mid-November by the deadly Cat 4 storm.

The nominal mission lifetime for CYGNSS is two years but the team says they could potentially last as long as five years or more if the spacecraft continue functioning.

Pegasus launches from the Florida Space Coast are infrequent. The last once took place over 13 years ago.

Typically they take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or the Reagan Test Range on the Kwajalein Atoll.

CYGNSS counts as the 20th Pegasus mission for NASA.

Flight deck of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft that will launch the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA's CYGNSS payload to low Earth orbit.  Credit: Julian Leek
Flight deck of the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft that will launch the Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket carrying NASA’s CYGNSS payload to low Earth orbit. Credit: Julian Leek

The CYGNSS spacecraft were built by Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. Each one weighs approx 29 kg. The deployed solar panels measure 1.65 meters in length.

The Space Physics Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor leads overall mission execution in partnership with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department at the University of Michigan leads the science investigation, and the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate oversees the mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  Credits: Photo credit: USAF
An Orbital ATK technician checks the installation of two of the eight the CYGNSS microsatellites on their deployment module at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credits: Photo credit: USAF
Flight crew for the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida who will drop and deploy Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket delivering NASA’s CYGUS micro satellites to LEO. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Flight crew for the Orbital ATK L-1011 Stargazer aircraft at the Skid Strip at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida who will drop and deploy Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket delivering NASA’s CYGUS micro satellites to LEO. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s RapidScat Ocean Wind Watcher Starts Earth Science Operations at Space Station

Barely two months after being launched to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA’s first science payload aimed at conducting Earth science from the station’s exterior has started its ocean wind monitoring operations two months ahead of schedule.

Data from the ISS Rapid Scatterometer, or ISS-RapidScat, payload is now available to the world’s weather and marine forecasting agencies following the successful completion of check out and calibration activities by the mission team.

Indeed it was already producing high quality, usable data following its power-on and activation at the station in late September and has monitored recent tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans prior to the end of the current hurricane season.

RapidScat is designed to monitor ocean winds for climate research, weather predictions, and hurricane monitoring for a minimum mission duration of two years.

“RapidScat is a short mission by NASA standards,” said RapidScat Project Scientist Ernesto Rodriguez of JPL.

“Its data will be ready to help support U.S. weather forecasting needs during the tail end of the 2014 hurricane season. The dissemination of these data to the international operational weather and marine forecasting communities ensures that RapidScat’s benefits will be felt throughout the world.”

ISS-RapidScat instrument, shown in this artist's rendering, was launched to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX CRS-4 mission on Sept. 21, 2014 and attached at ESA’s Columbus module.  It will measure ocean surface wind speed and direction and help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center.
ISS-RapidScat instrument, shown in this artist’s rendering, was launched to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX CRS-4 mission on Sept. 21, 2014, and attached at ESA’s Columbus module. It will measure ocean surface wind speed and direction and help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center.

The 1280 pound (580kilogram) experimental instrument was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s a cost-effective replacement to NASA’s former QuikScat satellite.

The $26 million remote sensing instrument uses radar pulses reflected from the ocean’s surface at different angles to calculate the speed and direction of winds over the ocean for the improvement of weather and marine forecasting and hurricane monitoring.

The RapidScat, payload was hauled up to the station as part of the science cargo launched aboard the commercial SpaceX Dragon CRS-4 cargo resupply mission that thundered to space on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept. 21.

ISS-RapidScat is NASA’s first research payload aimed at conducting near global Earth science from the station’s exterior and will be augmented with others in coming years.

ISS-RapidScat viewed the winds within post-tropical cyclone Nuri as it moved parallel to Japan on Nov. 6, 2014 05:30 UTC. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
ISS-RapidScat viewed the winds within post-tropical cyclone Nuri as it moved parallel to Japan on Nov. 6, 2014, 05:30 UTC. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It was robotically assembled and attached to the exterior of the station’s Columbus module using the station’s robotic arm and DEXTRE manipulator over a two day period on Sept 29 and 30.

Ground controllers at Johnson Space Center intricately maneuvered DEXTRE to pluck RapidScat and its nadir adapter from the unpressurized trunk section of the Dragon cargo ship and attached it to a vacant external mounting platform on the Columbus module holding mechanical and electrical connections.

The nadir adapter orients the instrument to point its antennae at Earth.

The couch sized instrument and adapter together measure about 49 x 46 x 83 inches (124 x 117 x 211 centimeters).

“The initial quality of the RapidScat wind data and the timely availability of products so soon after launch are remarkable,” said Paul Chang, ocean vector winds science team lead at NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS)/Center for Satellite Applications and Research (STAR), Silver Spring, Maryland.

“NOAA is looking forward to using RapidScat data to help support marine wind and wave forecasting and warning, and to exploring the unique sampling of the ocean wind fields provided by the space station’s orbit.”

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule packed with science experiments and station supplies blasts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 1:52 a.m. EDT on Sept. 21, 2014 bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule packed with science experiments and station supplies blasts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 1:52 a.m. EDT on Sept. 21, 2014, bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This has been a banner year for NASA’s Earth science missions. At least five missions will be launched to space within a 12 month period, the most new Earth-observing mission launches in one year in more than a decade.

ISS-RapidScat is the third of five NASA Earth science missions scheduled to launch over a year.

NASA has already launched the of the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, in February and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) carbon observatory in July 2014.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Inaugurates New Space Station Era as Earth Science Observation Platform with RapidScat Instrument

NASA inaugurated a new era of research for the International Space Station (ISS) as an Earth observation platform following the successful installation and activation of the ISS-RapidScat science instrument on the outposts exterior at Europe’s Columbus module.

The ISS Rapid Scatterometer, or ISS-RapidScat, is NASA’s first research payload aimed at conducting near global Earth science from the station’s exterior and will be augmented with others in coming years.

RapidScat is designed to monitor ocean winds for climate research, weather predictions, and hurricane monitoring.

The 1280 pound (580 kilogram) experimental instrument is already collecting its first science data following its recent power-on and activation at the station.

“Its antenna began spinning and it started transmitting and receiving its first winds data on Oct.1,” according to a NASA statement.

The first image from RapidScat was released by NASA on Oct. 6, shown below, and depicts preliminary measurements of global ocean near-surface wind speeds and directions.

Launched Sept. 21, 2014, to the International Space Station, NASA's newest Earth-observing mission, the International Space Station-RapidScat scatterometer to measure global ocean near-surface wind speeds and directions, has returned its first preliminary images.  Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech
Launched Sept. 21, 2014, to the International Space Station, NASA’s newest Earth-observing mission, the International Space Station-RapidScat scatterometer to measure global ocean near-surface wind speeds and directions, has returned its first preliminary images. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

The $26 million remote sensing instrument uses radar pulses to observe the speed and direction of winds over the ocean for the improvement of weather forecasting.

“Most satellite missions require weeks or even months to produce data of the quality that we seem to be getting from the first few days of RapidScat,” said RapidScat Project Scientist Ernesto Rodriguez of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which built and manages the mission.

“We have been very lucky that within the first days of operations we have already been able to observe a developing tropical cyclone.

“The quality of these data reflect the level of testing and preparation that the team has put in prior to launch,” Rodriguez said in a NASA statement. “It also reflects the quality of the spare QuikScat hardware from which RapidScat was partially assembled.”

RapidScat, payload was hauled up to the station as part of the science cargo launched aboard the commercial SpaceX Dragon CRS-4 cargo resupply mission that thundered to space on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept. 21.

Dragon was successfully berthed at the Earth-facing port on the station’s Harmony module on Sept 23, as detailed here.

It was robotically assembled and attached to the exterior of the station’s Columbus module using the station’s robotic arm and DEXTRE manipulator over a two day period on Sept 29 and 30.

Ground controllers at Johnson Space Center intricately maneuvered DEXTRE to pluck RapidScat and its nadir adapter from the unpressurized trunk section of the Dragon cargo ship and attached it to a vacant external mounting platform on the Columbus module holding mechanical and electrical connections.

Fascinating: #Canadarm & Dextre installed the #RapidScat Experiment on Columbus! @ISS_Research @NASAJPL @csa_asc. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst
Fascinating: #Canadarm & Dextre installed the #RapidScat Experiment on Columbus! @ISS_Research @NASAJPL @csa_asc. Credit: ESA/NASA/Alexander Gerst

The nadir adapter orients the instrument to point at Earth.

The couch sized instrument and adapter together measure about 49 x 46 x 83 inches (124 x 117 x 211 centimeters).

Engineers are in the midst of a two week check out process that is proceeding normally so far. Another two weeks of calibration work will follow.

Thereafter RapidScat will begin a mission expected to last at least two years, said Steve Volz, associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, at a prelaunch media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center.

RapidScat is the forerunner of at least five more Earth science observing instruments that will be added to the station by the end of the decade, Volz explained.

The second Earth science instrument, dubbed CATS, could be added by year’s end.

The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) is a laser instrument that will measure clouds and the location and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, and other particulates in the atmosphere.

CATS is slated to launch on the next SpaceX resupply mission, CRS-5, currently targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral, FL, on Dec. 9.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule packed with science experiments and station supplies blasts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 1:52 a.m. EDT on Sept. 21, 2014 bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon cargo capsule packed with science experiments and station supplies blasts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 1:52 a.m. EDT on Sept. 21, 2014, bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This has been a banner year for NASA’s Earth science missions. At least five missions will be launched to space within a 12 month period, the most new Earth-observing mission launches in one year in more than a decade.

ISS-RapidScat is the third of five NASA Earth science missions scheduled to launch over a year.

NASA has already launched the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory, a joint mission with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in February, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) carbon observatory in July 2014.

NASA managers show installed location of ISS-RapidScat instrument on the Columbus module on an ISS scale model at the Kennedy Space Center press site during launch period for the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon cargo mission.  Posing are Steve Volz, associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington and Howard Eisen, RapidScat Project Manager.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA managers show installed location of ISS-RapidScat instrument on the ESA Columbus module on an ISS scale model at the Kennedy Space Center press site during launch period for the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon cargo mission. Posing are Steve Volz, associate director for flight programs in the Earth Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington, and Howard Eisen, RapidScat Project Manager. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Commercial Space Taxis, Orion and NASA Human and Robotic Spaceflight at Ken’s upcoming presentations:

Oct 14: “What’s the Future of America’s Human Spaceflight Program with Orion and Commercial Astronaut Taxis” & “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 7:30 PM

Oct 23/24: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA