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Notes from the Field

Flying into Hurricane Harvey

August 27th, 2017 by Chris Ruf

I had the good fortune to join the crew of the NOAA P-3 “hurricane hunter” plane that flew into Harvey on 25 Aug 2017 shortly before it made landfall in Texas. We made six pairs of eyewall penetrations. The maximum surface level winds continued to grow with each successive one as we witnessed Harvey’s rapid intensification from a Cat 2 to Cat 4 hurricane. We were able to capture much of that dynamic transition, using continuous radar and radiometer remote sensing measurements plus frequent in situ measurements by dropsondes. These will be used to help calibrate and validate our measurements by CYGNSS, which have been ongoing since Harvey first started to develop earlier in the week. Following is a description of my experience that day.

Pre-flight briefing about an hour before take-off at 10:00 EDT.

The flight out to Harvey started ominously, with a detailed safety briefing before take-off for first timers like myself about things like the difference between what to do if we have to ditch in the ocean with more than 3 minutes of warning vs. less. The hurricane hunters have been flying for decades and have never had to ditch, so this gives you some idea of how thorough and detail oriented the crew is. After the safety briefing, the flight director mustered the full crew to discuss some last minute mission logistics and concluded with this: “Harvey is currently a Cat 2 hurricane and is expected to undergo RI (rapid intensification) while we are in the air, then head for landfall tonight near a major population center. Days like today are why we are here. Now let’s go do our jobs.” We were “wheels up” 15 minutes later at 10:00 EDT.

Me with two of the CYGNSS science team members, Dr. Paul Chang (left) and Dr. Zorana Jelenak (right), who were airborne mission scientists on the flight.

The two hour ferry flight from Florida across the Gulf of Mexico wasn’t much different from any commercial flight. But as we approached Harvey’s outer rain bands, things changed. Everyone strapped into their seat with four-point restraints across their chest and lap. Headsets were on and a steady chatter began between the flight director and the crew operating the various remote sensing equipment and dropsondes. A real time display from one of the radars showed the rain distribution within a 200 mile radius around us. Heavy rain spiraled out in bands from a bright circle to the south of us at the edge of the image. The plane banked to the south and headed toward that circle – the eyewall. The flight became more turbulent as we approached it. Occasionally, the bottom would drop out from under the plane and I would find myself lifted up off my seat, held down only by the straps. The flight director called it “sporty plus”. The worst of the turbulence occurred out in the spiral rain bands. Flying conditions became smoother as we approached the eyewall, but the skies grew progressively darker and, flying at 8000’ altitude and well below the freezing level, heavy rain streaked across the windows. A second real time display, from a microwave radiometer, showed the surface wind speed directly below the plane. It had been increasing steadily since we headed south into the inner core of the storm. Then we entered the eyewall. The rain became even more intense, the surface wind spiked above 51 m/s (~115 mph), and the skies darkened even more. Then, in the next minute, the interior of the plane grew suddenly brighter and the turbulence disappeared. Looking out the window, I could see the ocean below us and blue skies above. The radiometer showed that the surface wind speed had dropped below 10 m/s and the radar image drew a bright circle of intense rain all around us with nothing in the middle. We were in the eye of Harvey.

A visible image taken by the GOES satellite at 15:15 CDT as we were flying through the eye.

Looking out the window at 8000’ in the eye of Harvey (photo by Brad Klotz).

Over the next few hours, we conducted a total of six pairs of eyewall penetrations, each time circling to a new azimuth angle before entering the eye again in order to map out as complete an image of the storm structure as possible. With each successive penetration, the maximum winds encountered in the eyewall kept growing. We were experiencing firsthand Harvey’s rapid intensification phase as it strengthened all around us.

Screen captures of the flight line of the mission: (top) As we were ferrying out to the storm, when we got our first look at the eye (toward the south) with the airplane’s radar. (next) Starting our first (north-to-south) eyewall penetration. (next) Lining up for our second (east-to-west) penetration. (bottom) After our last (sixth) penetration, as we prepare to ferry back to FL.

Our measurements were radioed back to the National Hurricane Center in Miami as they were made, to be fed into their forecast models and to be forwarded to the media and emergency responders to let them know what Harvey had become and to help them prepare for what was headed toward Texas. Finally, as our fuel began to run low, we left the storm and returned back across the Gulf to our base at the NOAA Airborne Operations Center in Lakeland, FL. Minutes before landing, we received confirmation from the NHC that Harvey had been officially classified as a Cat 4 hurricane.

The P-3 right after we landed. Lots of hurricane remote sensors are visible on the wing and underside of the fuselage. She took very good care of us.

The CYGNSS constellation was launched on 15 Dec 2016 and the eight spacecraft have been going through engineering commissioning, in which each of their subsystems is tested and adjusted for best performance. One important milestone was reached on 4 Jan 2017 when we made our “first light” science measurements. This happened the first time we turned on the science radar receiver on one of the spacecraft (Flight Model #3, or FM03 for short) while pointing our science antennas down at the Earth. The receiver measures the strength of GPS signals that are reflected from the ocean surface, from which we can figure out how rough the seas are and how windy it is. FM03 was just crossing over the eastern coastline of Brazil at the time. The thick straight line pointing out into the South Atlantic from Brazil in this picture shows where FM03 was heading when we turned on the radar.

The CYGNSS radar measures four simultaneous GPS reflections that are spaced out around its sub-satellite point depending on where the GPS satellites are. Here are the first four measurements it made – our “first light” data.

The two measurements in the middle (labeled CH2 and CH3) are good examples of what GPS reflections from the ocean should look like when everything is working properly. The bright red spot should be right in the center if the radar receiver is properly tracking the GPS transmitters, the deep blue portion above the red spot should be uniform if the receiver noise floor is nice and stable, and the tapering “horseshoe shaped” region below the red spot should be shaped just the way it is if the radar’s signal processor is working right. There are literally thousands of things that all need to be just right for images like this to be generated, so it was amazing to see them appear the first time we tried. Of course, everything was not perfect. The measurement labeled CH1 (the one on the left) shows a much noisier and fainter ocean reflection. This was as a result of the radar incorrectly looking at the ocean through a weak portion of its antenna rather than the strong part that it should be using. It was caused by a software problem that we have since fixed. The CH4 measurement on the right looks like a single hot spot without the horseshoe shaped region below it because it is a reflection from land, not ocean (possible because we were right near the Brazilian coast at the time). This is exactly what land reflections should look like, so it is not a problem.

Next, all eight of the spaceraft will have their science radar receivers turned on and we will begin to look carefully at all of the data that will begin to flow. I’ll be reporting back soon on how it looks.

CYGNSS Progress Report and Year-end Reflections

December 27th, 2016 by Mary Morris

As the year comes to a close, I’m probably not the only one looking back at how 2016 panned out. For the CYGNSS team, we ended 2016 with a lot of excitement, after carefully and patiently working on pre-launch development for the past few years. It takes a long time to develop things in careful and systematic way, and now we get to look at the on-orbit data to make sure everything makes sense.

As of December 21, all eight satellites continue to be healthy. The engineering commissioning phase continues slowly but surely, so that we can transition into science operations soon. I know the entire science team is excited for this, but we will continue to be patient.

On a more personal note, I am also reflecting on a busy December. After attending the CYGNSS launch, I flew back to Ann Arbor to defend my Ph.D. dissertation—successfully, I might add! I’m currently working through the edits to my dissertation so that I can hit the ground running as a research fellow when I get back to Ann Arbor after a much-needed winter break with my family. With all of the excitement of December, I don’t think I’ve fully realized that my graduate school career is over. Most students don’t experience a satellite launch and a Ph.D. defense within a week of each other … and I’m not sure I would recommend that schedule to others! As I reflect on my graduate school journey, I’m glad all of my hard work has paid off, and I’m looking forward to new exciting moments as I further my career. I’ll always remember December 2016 as one of the busiest and most exciting times of my life. Here’s to more adventures in Earth science!

My first time at John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and hopefully not my last!

My first time at John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and hopefully not my last!

First Contact Made with CYGNSS Satellites on Orbit

December 16th, 2016 by Mary Morris

It’s Friday, and the excitement of launch day yesterday still hasn’t worn off. Not only did we see CYGNSS get launched into space, we were also able to make first contact with them. I talked about the excitement of the launch itself yesterday, so today’s post will describe our experiences communicating with each of the eight satellites for the first time.

First, I want to remind you of what our spacecraft looked like, all bundled up and stacked on the deployment module:

All eight spacecraft, with their solar panel wings stowed, attached to the deployment module eventually contained in the Pegasus XL launch vehicle.

Once it reached the right altitude, the deployment module pushed pairs of satellites off in different directions. A little while after being deployed, the spacecraft solar power panel wings unfolded, and the spacecraft went into “sun point” mode, which is exactly what it sounds like: the spacecraft maneuvered to get their solar panels pointed directly towards the sun for maximum charging. This sequence of events is illustrated in this artist representation of the deployment sequence:

During deployment, the spacecraft are pushed off the deployment module to start their solo orbits. The solar panel wings unfurl after the satellite is deployed.

During deployment, the spacecraft are pushed off the deployment module to start their solo orbits. The solar panel wings unfurl after the satellite is deployed.

After launch, we needed these satellites to start charging their batteries as soon as possible, via the solar panels. Although we only need six working satellites to meet our science requirements, we’re always chasing perfection. At 11 AM EST, we all gathered in a conference room to take a look at the first engineering data coming down from the satellites.

We weren’t the only ones looking at the data, however. CYGNSS team members at Southwest Research Institute’s Mission Operations Center (MOC) in Boulder, CO are operating 24/7 to monitor engineering data we get from the satellites, as well as set up communications with the satellites via our ground stations in Hawaii, Chile, and Australia. At the MOC, they were sending commands and planning out the communication timeline, depending on the scenario we ran into.

What you might not remember is that initially after deployment, the satellites are still pretty close to each other while orbiting. This makes it challenging to talk to more than one or two satellites at a time when they are in our contact zones. We had a detailed plan that included a timeline for which satellites were going to be communicated with, when, and from which ground station. Contacting all eight satellites would take all day—a day that started at 2 o’clock in the morning for some of us!

The second exciting moment of the day was seeing the engineering data come down from the first satellite we contacted. The conference room was tense and dead silent at 11:40 AM EST, 2 minutes before first contact. I could hear everyone’s watches tick. When the first data showed up on the screen, we all breathed a sigh of relief. All the engineering data looked good! We relaxed a bit after that.

As the day went on, we contacted more and more satellites. While others exchanged horror stories they had experienced during previous missions during the first day, we tried to hope for the best. We were nervous and hesitant to declare success until we had thoroughly analyzed the limited data we had. It was fascinating to see how engineers could connect the dots between the temperatures of different parts of the spacecraft and things like the orientation and motion of the spacecraft with respect to the sun.

After successfully contacting all eight spacecraft by 3:30pm EST, we still weren’t completely sure whether one satellite had stabilized in sun point mode, but there wasn’t much that those in the conference room could do about it. We had to let the folks in the MOC work their magic. And work their magic they did! Overnight, all eight satellites were declared “green.” It sure was nice waking up to that news.

Over the coming weeks, the engineering commissioning phase will proceed. The folks at the MOC will be busy, even though it’s nearing the holidays. Prof. Ruf, currently at the MOC, sent me a few photos of all the action earlier today.



The MOC team hard at work pouring over initial engineering data from the spacecraft on December 16, 2016. Photo credit: Chris Ruf

The MOC team hard at work pouring over initial engineering data from the spacecraft on December 16, 2016. Photo credit: Chris Ruf

According to Prof. Ruf, as of 5:00pm EST, things were still going smoothly. We all hope things continue to go well over the coming days and weeks before we go into science operations mode.

Thanks MOC team! Go CYGNSS!

CYGNSS Launch Day Thoughts

December 15th, 2016 by Mary Morris

I’m currently writing from Hangar AE, where it all happened. While we wait to make contact with all of the CYGNSS satellites after launch, I’m going to attempt some coherent thoughts about the past few days.

You may already have been following what’s been going on since my last post, but I’ll give a brief summary from someone who experienced it more directly.

We tried to launch on Monday, but had to return to base after two aborts. It was frustrating to see weather-related violations go green as we turned to dealing with aircraft anomalies. Eventually, we had to abort on Monday morning due to an anomaly with the hydraulic pump associated with the release mechanism on the L-1011 aircraft. Even though we showed up excited and ready to rock and roll, things just didn’t go our way on Monday. One thing I’ve learned is that there is an unlimited amount of things that can go wrong. It’s very rare for things to go according to plan. Even though we had to abort, the flight team wasn’t too disappointed—this is how things usually go. Things didn’t go entirely smoothly after that, either. We ended up finding an issue with flight parameter data on Tuesday, delaying  our next attempt until today, Thursday.

At 3 o’clock this morning I sat down at my console in the engineering backroom—the cheap, but more fun seats. Everyone “on console” has a headset that can be used to tune into many different communication channels. There is a whole channel dedicated for anomalies! We got there at 3 am because there is a whole binder full of steps to complete before we could launch. In addition to all of the audio we could tune into, there were many video feeds and displays of housekeeping data. Talk about information overload! It was easy to stay awake on a few hours of sleep with all of those stimuli in front of me. The adrenaline also helped.

While we watched the feeds, we would keep track of the housekeeping data to make sure everything looked okay. We also had a video feed from the chase plane to keep tabs on the rocket. I remember everyone being absolutely glued to their screens in nervous anticipation as we watched the video of the Pegasus XL rocket launch. In the engineering backroom, I was joined with other engineers who were very excited to see CYGNSS launch so beautifully. Here is a photo of everyone while we watched the rocket launch:
The engineering backroom crew was excited about the CYGNSS launch finally happening.

The engineering backroom crew was excited about the CYGNSS launch finally happening.

After all of the headaches earlier in the week, it was bizarre how well everything went today. In a flash, all of the CYGNSS satellites were orbiting and the L-1011 aircraft returned safely. Here is a photo of me, which hopefully portrays how excited I was, even with just a few hours of sleep.

Happy to see CYGNSS satellites up in orbit, while watching the feeds in our back control room.

Happy to see CYGNSS satellites up in orbit, while watching the feeds in our back control room.

We’re also so happy for Prof. Ruf and the entire team that made CYGNSS happen. Immediately after we launched, Prof. Ruf was bombarded by interviewers who wanted his take on the success of the mission.

While we had some post-launch down time, before we could communicate with the spacecraft, a beaming Prof. Ruf is interviewed in Hangar AE after the CYGNSS satellites were deployed.

A few hours after launch, we were able to start communicating with the spacecraft, but I’ll save a separate blog post for that topic since it was absolutely fascinating. Stay tuned and go CYGNSS!