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GPS Signals Spot Signs of Typhoons

The COSMIC satellite constellation uses GPS signals for a vertical view of the atmosphere

2 min read

The COSMIC constellation—a set of satellites that improbably exploits signals from the U.S. Global Positioning System to obtain atmospheric data—is aloft after a rocky start and is ­producing readings that improve weather forecasts and climate models. Since the satellites’ launch in 2006, three have experienced serious malfunctions. One lost a solar panel and is still working at reduced capacity, while another lost its solar-panel drive mechanism, leaving the panels stuck in one direction. A third mysteriously took a prolonged vacation for two months but just as inexplicably came back to life again last November.

Even so, forecasters already have come to appreciate COSMIC’s high-quality vertical views of the global atmosphere from the ionosphere down into the troposphere, to within 1 kilometer of Earth’s surface. A single sounding from a COSMIC satellite helped predict the formation of Hurricane Ernesto in late August 2006, which killed eight people and caused more than US $500 million in damage.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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