NASA has lost contact with hurricane-watching CYGNSS satellite

An artist's depiction of one of the eight satellites that make up NASA's hurricane-monitoring CYGNSS mission.
An artist's depiction of one of the eight satellites that make up NASA's hurricane-monitoring CYGNSS mission. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA is working to reestablish contact with one of the eight spacecraft that make up its Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) constellation, which monitors hurricanes.

CYGNSS is the first space-based system to collect frequent measurements of wind speeds from the ocean's surface near the eye of storms such as tropical cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes. However, the CYGNSS team last received data from the satellite designated FM06 at around 4:32 p.m. EST (2132 GMT) on Nov. 26, according to a NASA statement

The remaining seven satellites that comprise the CYGNSS constellation remain operational and have continued collecting scientific data since FM06 went incommunicado last month, according to NASA's primary statement about the incident. The constellation's science work can continue without FM06, but if the team can't reconnect with the spacecraft, the loss will reduce the spatial coverage of CYGNSS, which until November provided nearly gap-free coverage of Earth

Related: NASA's CYGNSS hurricane-tracking satellites in pictures

CYGNSS was designed by the University of Michigan and Southwest Research Institute in Colorado with the aim of developing a better understanding of the interaction between the sea and the air near the eye of a storm. The University of Michigan took the lead in the development of CYGNSS following a $152 million investment from NASA in 2012. The constellation of microsatellites successfully launched on Dec. 15, 2016, and completed its primary science objectives in March 2019. Since then, CYGNSS has been operating in extended mission status.

CYGNSS is unique because it is the first NASA mission to conduct remote sensing of Earth's surface using an existing Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), commonly used to pinpoint a receiver and its user anywhere across Earth.

Although there are several GNSS systems, each a constellation of satellites, CYGNSS exclusively uses the U.S Global Positioning System (GPS). 

The CYGNSS spacecraft act as sensors, receiving signals from GPS pulses reflected by the surface of Earth. Because these GPS signals operate at low microwave frequencies, they are able to penetrate the thick clouds and rain associated with storms, allowing CYGNSS to measure wind speeds within the inner core of storms.

Scientists hope this data could allow them to better understand how tropical cyclones form, whether they will strengthen, and if so by how much. Ultimately, this knowledge could improve the forecasting and tracking of tropical cyclones. 

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.