MIT Lincoln Laboratory is leading a team to develop a constellation of mini weather satellites

NASA chose the smallsats proposal as one of the missions for its Earth Venture Instrument program

by Dorothy Ryan|Communications and Community Outreach Office

Lincoln Laboratory and partners from academia and the U.S. government have been selected to develop and launch a constellation of 12 CubeSats that will provide rapid-refresh microwave atmospheric measurements over tropical regions to aid in the understanding of storm dynamics. Under its Earth Venture Instrument programs, NASA funds the design and fabrication of technologies that will monitor Earth from space to advance the study of the planet and its environmental changes.

The concept drawing shows how the constellation of 3U CubeSats will work.The concept drawing shows how the constellation of 3U CubeSats will work. The left CubeSat provides a temperature profile of a simulated tropical cyclone from a numerical weather prediction (NWP) model. The center CubeSat enables 12-channel radiometric imagery; the drawing shows simulated radiances from an NWP model and radiative transfer model. The right CubeSat has a single-channel radiance image of a tropical cyclone with 30-minute median revisit rate to meet most precision and all-weather temperature and humidity (PATH) requirements.
Image courtesy of NASA.


Researchers from Lincoln Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Center, NASA Wallops Flight Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), MIT, the Universities of Wisconsin–Madison, Miami, and Massachusetts–Amherst, and Tufts and Cornell Universities are collaborating on the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission. When the mission is fully implemented, 12 3U CubeSats (each unit [U] measures 10 × 10 ×11 cm; a 3U CubeSat is 10 x 10 x 34 cm) equipped with microwave radiometers will be placed in three low-Earth orbital planes to measure temperature and water vapor profiles, precipitation intensity, and cloud properties of tropical cyclones. The use of this constellation of sensors will enable the collection of data as often as every 21 minutes.

"Current weather systems provide good information about the track a storm takes, but TROPICS will improve our picture of a storm’s intensity," said William Blackwell, an associate leader in Lincoln Laboratory's Applied Space Systems Group and the principal investigator for TROPICS. "We will see how, where, and when a cyclone is intensifying."

"The selection of TROPICS under the Earth Venture program will allow us to obtain previously unavailable observations of hurricanes and other weather systems," said Jack Kaye, Associate Director for Research, NASA Earth Science Division. "The use of a constellation of nanosatellites enables this project to provide enhanced temporal resolution of storm systems, which is especially important during the critical, but poorly understood, periods of intensification and dissipation," he continued. The information TROPICS will collect will not only enrich meteorologists' models of tropical weather but can guide decisions on storm preparations and evacuations.

The first of the TROPICS spacecraft are slated to be launched in 2019. On the planned one-year mission, TROPICS will make measurements of latitudes within +/– 40 degrees, sending data back to Lincoln Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin for processing. The TROPICS mission will investigate several of NASA's science objectives—for example, exploring the relationships between moisture measurements and storm size and intensity, and understanding the effects of precipitation in core regions of a storm to the storm’s evolution. TROPICS will also validate nanosatellites as a low-cost alternative to large, extremely expensive weather satellites.

The TROPICS team spans a broad cross section of organizations. Blackwell said this partnership draws from the strengths of the various participants. For example, Lincoln Laboratory and MIT's Space Systems Laboratory have experience in building spacecraft and validating on-orbit performance, and Lincoln Laboratory has a strong background in environmental monitoring. The University of Wisconsin is providing algorithm development and data processing; the University of Massachusetts has built the microwave receiver front-ends, including sensitive amplifiers; NASA Wallops Flight Center will be the mission planning center and its antennas will be used for communications with the CubeSats; NOAA’s expertise in weather models will inform the study of the storm characteristics; and the University of Miami's Cooperative Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Studies will help analyze the relationships between moisture and precipitation to storm composition and intensity.

For more detailed information on TROPICS, visit the website at

Posted June 2016


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