A tiny, low-cost weather satellite may point the way toward new, distributed architectures for meteorology.
MicroMAS (Micro-sized Microwave Atmospheric Satellite) combines a 1U (10cm x 10cm x 10cm) microwave radiometer from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory with a 3-axis-stabilized 2U CubeSat bus.
The satellite was developed by a student team at MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory, led by Boeing Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Dr. Kerri Cahoy.
MicroMAS is scheduled for launch to the International Space Station on May 6, with deployment from the space station scheduled for May or June.
MicroMAS will observe the dynamics of hurricanes and other large storm systems. Its radiometer is expected to have resolution comparable to larger, more expensive polar-orbiting satellites, but its lower-inclination orbit will permit more frequent revisits to storm systems. Polar-orbiting satellites spend much of their time above the latitudes where hurricanes typically occur. They can only visit a storm site twice a day, while MicroMAS can revisit a storm every 90 minutes.
Frequent revisits will allow MicroMAS to gather unique data on the hydrologic cycle, including vapor, liquid, and solid precipitation, and diurnal variations.
The MicroMAS team hopes the satellite will lead to new system designs that greatly improve operational numerical weather predictions, climate monitoring, and other scientific objectives.
MicroMAS is not for the first weather satellite to use the CubeSat form factor, however. Two Radio Aurora Explorers (RAX-1 and -2), built by the University of Michigan, performed space-weather missions in 2010 and 2011.
MicroMAS points toward new architectures based on million-dollar satellites, rather than billion-dollar satellites. That is encouraging given the disarray the government weather satellite program is in. Technology alone won’t solve the problem, however. Until and unless weather satellites are privatized, there will be little incentive to bring costs down.