NASA’s RapidScat Keeps Watchful Eye on Ocean Storms


On September 20, NASA launched an Earth science mission that is a hit with researchers and forecasters of hurricanes and other tropical cyclones.

Designed and built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and lodged on the exterior of the International Space Station, the ISS-RapidScat scatterometer measures surface wind speed and direction over the ocean. For hurricane researchers, the mission will help answer remaining questions about the earliest stages of hurricane and tropical cyclone development all around the globe. For weather forecasters, ISS-RapidScat’s data will add an extra eye and more complete coverage of wind patterns far out to sea that could morph into dangerous storms.

Ernesto Rodriguez of JPL, RapidScat’s project scientist, noted that the RapidScat project has been in communication with weather forecasting agencies in the United States, Europe and India. “They have all been deeply appreciative of the increase in the frequency of observations that will be provided by RapidScat,” he said.

The European Space Agency’s two ASCAT scatterometers on its MetOp spacecraft are currently the only fully operational scatterometers in orbit. When RapidScat joins them, the three instruments will cover 90 percent of Earth’s surface each day.

Mark Bourassa, a hurricane researcher at Florida State University, plans to use RapidScat observations to identify and study tropical disturbances that may be precursors to tropical cyclones. “We use the wind data to forecast when precursors for hurricanes will form,” Bourassa explained. “We can look at the rotation of the winds coupled with the cloud cover to identify precursors. On the Eastern Pacific side, we find that approach is quite effective.”

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman captured the view above of Typhoon Vongfong while he orbited the Earth aboard the International Space Station.

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