This miniature satellite may change the way we track weather patterns (Photo from NASA)


It seems no matter how many advances we make in technology, no one can still get the weather right. That may change with NASA’s latest development. The agency has been testing a small, shoebox-sized satellite that can make more accurate weather forecasts. It does this by using experimental technology to detect rain and snow in order to see storms.


Called RainCube, short for “Radar in a CubeSat,” it’s a small device that’s actually an experiment to determine if a low-cost, miniature satellite can still provide a real-time look at storms. The satellite uses radar to “see” objects, similar to how a bat uses sonar. Its umbrella shaped antenna sends out specialized radar signals, or chirps, that bounce off raindrops and send back a picture of what the inside of a storm looks like. The deeper the radar goes, the more storm activity you see.


The team tested RainCube by deploying it into low-Earth orbit from the International Space Station back in July. It managed to take pictures of a storm developing over Mexico in August. Earlier this month, the satellite sent images of Hurricane Florence’s first rainfall. Clearly, the experiment has been a success, but RainCube isn’t only about tracking storms all by itself. It’s also proving that a mini-rain radar could work.


NASA has teamed up with Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems, Inc. to launch the RainCube mission. Tyvak handles creating the spacecraft bus, integrating and testing the flight system, overseeing launch vehicle integration, and managing ground systems and controlling the spacecraft when it takes flight.


"There's a plethora of ground-based experiments that have provided an enormous amount of information, and that's why our weather forecasts nowadays are not that bad," said Simone Tanelli, the co-investigator for RainCube. "But they don't provide a global view. Also, there are weather satellites that provide such a global view, but what they are not telling you is what's happening inside the storm. And that's where the processes that make a storm grow and/or decay happen."


Its small size means it uses less power and uses fewer components making it inexpensive to launch. This means more of them could be sent into orbit. This fleet of miniature satellites could easily track storms and provide update information on them every few minutes. They could even yield data to help evaluate and improve weather models that predict the movement of rain, snow, sleet, and hail leading to more accurate weather forecasts. And as Graeme Stephens, director of the Center of Climate Sciences at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory points out, RainCube provides a new way of viewing the Earth. 


So far, NASA’s tests prove to be promising. If RainCube is truly a success, it could change the way we track weather. And it may even be a great advantage when it comes to tracking deadly storms. With technology like this, perhaps we can see storms like Hurricane Florence on the horizon and can warn people early to give them better time to prepare.


Have a story tip? Message me at: cabe(at)element14(dot)com