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Southwest Research Institute Satellites Will Reveal Hurricane Intensity

Courtesy of NASA
Principal Investigator Dr. Christopher Ruf inspects CYGNSS in the lab, February 2015.

Our understanding of hurricanes is about to take a huge leap forward thanks to San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute. The groundbreaking work is being done by satellites SwRI describes as being able to fit on your desk.

CYGNSS or the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System is an eight-satellite constellation that was launched in mid-December.

CYGNSS Project Systems Engineer Randy Rose says the past 50 years have seen hurricane tracking technology improve accuracy by as much as 300 percent. But forecasting intensity has been left behind without measurable improvement.

"We know well where a hurricane is going. We just don't know what it  is going to do when it gets there. Katrina is a good example. They expected a strong hurricane, but they did not expect the storm surge that came with it," says Rose.

Heavy rain distorts modern monitoring, keeping wind speed hurricanes a mystery. 

"Up until now, up until CYGNSS, they did not have the wind speed data under a hurricane. They were only able to use the Hurricane Hunters," he says.

Hurricane Hunters are specially outfitted Air Force planes that have to literally fly into a hurricane. 

CYGNSS monitors GPS waves from space. GPS isn't as affected by heavy rain. So scientists can gain the illusive data by piercing the hurricane instead of relying on the dangerous and limited Hurricane Hunter flights.

They have tested CYGNSS on Tropical Cyclone Enawo and Tropical Cyclone Debbie. 

No data has been made public because the satellites are still being calibrated, but Rose says the scientists are very excited to fill these knowledge gaps.

The University of Michigan is responsible for running the science on the CYGNSS mission. They are expected to publish data in mid-May and the satellites are scheduled to be ready for the June 1 beginning of hurricane season.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive