How a shoebox-size weather satellite defied expectations before crashing to Earth

NASA’s RainCube satellite proved big size not always better

A shoebox size satellite demostrated big data can come from an inexpensive small package.
A shoebox size satellite demostrated big data can come from an inexpensive small package.

A tiny weather satellite’s life ended in a fiery blaze as it descended into a predestined plunge into the Earth’s atmosphere. But all was not lost.

The two-and-a-half-year mission for RainCube was a success for a shoebox-size weather satellite that was designed to showcase how tiny satellites, called CubeSats, could be less expensive while still providing robust weather information.

Many weather satellites cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take up the size of a school bus, however, CubeSats are less expensive and deploy into space with minimal resources.

RainCube was one of them and released from the International Space Station in 2018. It was only expected to last two months but sent back its last weather radar images on Dec. 24, 2020.

RainCube had exceeded its mission in more ways than just longevity. It excelled where ground-based radar had limits.

Most radar instruments are ground-based and can’t see beyond a couple hundred miles from the coast; however, space-based radar can identify raindrops, ice and snowflakes from storms around the world.

During the 2020 hurricane season, researchers were able to peer down on hurricanes Marco and Laura. RainCube and another CubeSat, called TEMPEST-D, relayed combined data to offer a 3D perspective of the storms in the Gulf.

“That opened the door to something that Earth scientists are getting really excited about, which is using multiple CubeSats at the same time to study our planet,” said Shannon Statham, RainCube project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.

Combined CubeSat data offered a 3D view of tropical cycones

The affordability means constellations of small satellites are becoming ever more popular and more CubeSats will soon replace RainCube.

TROPICS will be the next fleet of six CubeSats, which could enter service early in 2022. These could prove vital in monitoring small-scale features in hurricanes that would otherwise be missed by higher altitude fixed position satellites.

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