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Lift-off: NASA Finally Launches CYGNSS Hurricane Satellite Constellation

Dec 16, 2016 04:30 AM EST

NASA's 8-satellite hurricane-watching mission finally blasted off into space on Thursday, Dec. 15.

The CYGNSS (Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System) mission, which will study hurricanes like never before, launched on an Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket that was flown into launch position by a modified Lockheed Martin L-1011 Stargazer carrier plane, Space.com reports.

"We have successfully contacted each of the 8 observatories on our first attempt," Chris Ruf, CYGNSS principal investigator, said in a blog post. "This bodes very well for their health and status, which is the next thing we will be carefully checking with the next contacts in the coming days."

The mission was scheduled for launch on Monday, Dec. 12, but was delayed due to a glitch in the hydraulic pump. The launch was rescheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 14 but was again pushed back to a later date due to an issue with the flight data used by the spacecraft's software.

According to Christine Bonniksen, CYGNSS program executive, the airplane launch is cheaper than the conventional, vertical launch. During the launch, the Pegasus rocket engines fired at the pilot's command. The first stage burned out in 65 seconds before dropping into the ocean. The second solid stage ignited and burned for 161 seconds into the flight, after which the payload fairing that covered CYGNSS was discarded. After four minutes, the third stage ignited successfully and completed its burn for about 70 seconds, Spaceflight Insider reports.

CYGNSS is composed of a constellation of eight small satellites that will orbit the Earth at an altitude of about 316 miles (508 kilometers) and inclined at 35 degrees. Each spacecraft will use GPS signals reflected from the oceans to measure the wind speed near the ground in the tropics. While current spacecraft could only look at a storm every three days, CYGNSS will be able to make measurements every seven hours, which will allow scientist to efficiently keep track of changes that could happen in less than a day.

"Being able to predict where a storm is going to make landfall has gotten steadily better and being able to predict how strong it's going to be when it does make landfall has not improved anywhere near as much," Ruf said in an interview with Spaceflight Insider.

Ruf added that with the data returned by the mission, the CYGNSS team is hoping that the spacecraft will improve its ability to forecast the strength of a hurricane when it makes landfall.

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