NASA is upping its reliance on small satellite constellations, which will allow researchers to perform big science on a smaller budget. The space agency has prepped its first Earth science mission — a fleet of eight suitcase-sized satellites dubbed CYGNSS (not to be confused with Cygnus) — as part of this new endeavor. In a news briefing today, the mission team announced that the vehicle and payload are ready to launch on December 12.

CYGNSS — which is short for the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System — is a system of eight small satellites that are designed to study how hurricanes intensify. Each satellite weighs 64 pounds, and essentially function as a group of flying FM radio stations.

The system, which comes with a $162 million price tag, will measure surface wind speeds to better understand how hurricanes grow and intensify.

Historically, hurricane missions measured wind speeds over the ocean via short wavelengths of light. However, shorter wavelengths of light are easily scattered by rain drops, severely limiting the data collected, especially in the inner core of a hurricane, where the rainfall is the heaviest.

CYGNSS is equipped with special instruments that use GPS signals to see through the rain, allowing CYGNSS to observe and record the highest winds despite heavy rainfall.

“Forecasting capabilities are going to be greatly increased,” NASA Launch Manager Tim Dunn explained in a news briefing. “As a Floridian, I will really appreciate that, certainly based on what we had to do this fall with Hurricane Matthew.”

Dunn also told members of the media that the mission underwent a dress rehearsal this morning. The rehearsal went as planned, signaling the mission is currently a “go” for launch on Monday morning.

The Pegasus rocket will drop from an L-1011 aircraft.
The Pegasus rocket will drop from an L-1011 aircraft. 

The CYGNSS satellites will hitch a ride on an L-1011 airplane up to a target altitude of 39,00 feet. The payload will be tucked inside the fairing of a Pegasus XL rocket which will drop from the plane before delivering the satellites to their intended orbit.

This flight marks the 20th NASA mission to fly on a Pegasus. The plane will take off from Cape Canaveral one hour prior to the 8:24 a.m. Eastern launch time. Five seconds after the Pegasus is released, the motor will ignite, sending it into space. The satellites will then be deployed two at time and in opposing pairs, with the final two departing the Pegasus approximately 14 minutes after it drops.

Florida weather is always tricky, and this week is no exception. The main cause for concern is precipitation. Even though CYGNSS can see through the rain, its transport vehicle cannot fly through rain. The L-1011 has some flexibility as it can maneuver around storm cells. In the advent the crew is unable to launch on Monday morning, there will be backup opportunities each day this week.

Photos via NASA