NASA: UM hurricane satellites’ launch moved to Thursday

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

NASA has rescheduled the launch of University of Michigan satellites designed to monitor hurricanes for Thursday, officials said.

The space agency planned to launch them Wednesday morning, but problems with flight parameter data used by the spacecrafts’ software caused it to delay take off until Thursday.

Officials said the issue was discovered during routine testing Tuesday.

The launch is scheduled for 8:26 a.m. Live commentary will begin at 7 a.m. Thursday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and carried on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

Meteorologists with the U.S. Air Force 45th Weather Squadron forecast an 80 percent chance of favorable weather for the launch.

The so-called Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, or CYGNSS, was initially scheduled to be launched Monday, but mechanical problems moved the launch to Tuesday — and then to Wednesday, according to NASA.

Developed by the University of Michigan, the $157 million system uses eight sister satellites to keep an eye on hurricanes to improve forecasting of hurricane intensity, tracking and storm surges.

Chris Ruf, a professor in UM’s Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, is the principal investigator for the CYGNSS mission.

CYGNSS is NASA’s first earth science-based small-satellite constellation. It’s also the first satellite for UM. Designed and built by UM and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, each of the satellites is about five feet long and two feet wide, and weighs about 64 pounds. They have a lifespan of two years.

“We’ve never flown a satellite mission before,” said Aaron Ridley, a professor of space weather with the UM College of Engineering’s Climate & Space Department. He works with Ruf on the project. “We’ve had instruments on satellites that were flown all over the solar system, but we’ve never been in charge of a full-on mission before. This is a great thing for the University of Michigan.”

Unlike most satellites, the eight in the CYGNSS project aren’t hitching a ride with a rocket launched from the ground. They’re flying to their new home above the earth in an ATK Pegasus XL rocket that drops from a modified Lockheed L-1011 TriStar jetliner, the “Stargazer,” in flight.

As the jetliner reaches about 39,000 feet over the ocean, it will release the rocket. Five seconds later, the rocket’s engine will ignite and propel the satellites into orbit about 317 miles over the Earth’s surface.

A hydraulic system on the Stargazer developed a problem before Monday’s 8:30 a.m. take off, NASA officials said Monday. George Diller, a NASA spokesman, said the system allows the rocket to release from the plane. He said there was problem with the airplane’s hydraulic system as well.

On Wednesday, officials said both the Pegasus rocket and the Stargazer are ready to fly.

NASA has used Pegasus rockets since 1990 and the agency and UM have been working on the CYGNSS project since 2012.

The project’s satellites use the same GPS technology motorists use to navigate city streets to monitor surface winds over the ocean across the planet’s tropical hurricane zones for two years.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic runs June 1 through Nov. 30; eastern Pacific hurricane season runs May 15 through Nov. 30.

The satellites will be able to see through rain and clouds to determine the wind speed just above the surface of the ocean by measuring the ocean roughness. Previously, this weather data had only been available from hurricane-hunter airplanes sent out to analyze the storms.

“It will eventually allow us to predict the intensity of a hurricane as it makes landfall ,” Ridley said. “We’ll be able to determine how much storm surge there is, which is what kills the most people and causes the most damage.”