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CYGNSS launch
A photo taken from a NASA F-18 chase plane shows Orbital ATK’s L-1011 Stargazer jet deploying a Pegasus XL rocket to launch eight CYGNSS satellites. (NASA Photo / Lori Losey)

After several days of delays, a squadron of eight microsatellites was sent into orbit by a rocket launched from a high-flying airplane. Their mission? To study the winds that power the heart of a hurricane.

The launch was originally scheduled for Monday, and then for Wednesday. Each time, technical glitches forced a postponement. But today, it was all systems go as Orbital ATK’s Lockheed L-1011 Stargazer jet took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Fliroda.

An hour after takeoff, the airplane released a three-stage Pegasus rocket from an altitude of 39,000 feet. The Pegasus fired up its rocket engines and deployed the eight suitcase-sized satellites into low Earth orbit.

“The deployments looked great,” said Southwest Research Institute’s John Scherrer, a project manager for the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, or CYGNSS. “Right on time.”

A few hours later, NASA reported that all eight satellites were in contact with ground controllers and in good health.

The $157 million CYGNSS mission is designed to measure wind speeds around the inner core of hurricanes and other tropical storms by analyzing how the satellites’ GPS signals are scattered by waves that roughen the ocean’s surface. The technique should be able to “see” through rain, which the methods used by other weather-monitoring don’t do nearly as well.

The fact that there are eight satellites in the system means observations of a given location can be made every seven hours, compared with two or three days for a single satellite. That should give researchers a better look at the processes that turn tropical storms into hurricanes, and improve the state of hurricane prediction.

The CYGNSS team expects to start getting science data next week, and the system should be fully operational in time for the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season next June. The mission is slated to last two years.

CYGNSS satellite
An artist’s conception shows a CYGNSS satellite in orbit. (NASA Photo)
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