TEMPEST-D: The CubeSat That Could Measure Hurricane Dorian (author: Alexis Wilson)

While Hurricane Dorian continues to make headlines after making landfall over Cape Hatteras, NC at 8:35 am EDT, NASA released an animation taken of the hurricane from one of their experimental satellites. This satellite, known as the Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical Systems – Demonstration (TEMPEST-D), is part of NASA’s class of nanosatellites known as CubeSats. CubeSats are small in size, where the largest qualifying dimensions (known as 6U) are 60 cm x 60 cm x 60 cm with a weight of approximately 8 kgs, and can shrink to as small of dimensions (known as 1U) as 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm and weigh about 1.3 kg. As a result of their small size, CubeSats are being tested as a low cost alternative to current operational weather satellites. TEMPEST-D is one of the larger CubeSats, labelled as a 6U, but as can be seen in the image on the right, it is still the approximate size of a cereal box.


The completed TEMPEST-D CubeSat satellite with the solar panels deployed. Image Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies


In the animation of Hurricane Dorian, the CubeSat TEMPEST-D captured areas of light to heavy rainfall within the hurricane at four different atmospheric layers. Designed to measure convective precipitation and structure of a storm in three dimensions, TEMPEST-D used a miniaturized microwave radiometer to scan the atmosphere at various wavelengths, resulting in the layers of precipitation intensity within Hurricane Dorian shown below.

CubeSats are still in the experimental stage, but should they be successful with tracking storms like Hurricane Dorian, CubeSats would help expand our network of satellites to include a stronger network of high quality data at the same relative cost as a single satellite. TEMPEST-D in particular could provide scientists with a better understanding of the processes that govern the formation and dissipation of clouds, which is currently a large source of uncertainty that leads to considerable changes in future climate models. Overall, CubeSats like TEMPEST-D have the potential to help scientists better understand our global climate, and in turn, help forecasters provide more accurate forecasts for storms and hurricanes just like Dorian.


Hurricane Dorian as seen by TEMPEST-D on 9/03/2019 at 2am EDT. High intensity rain is shown in yellow, red, and pink while low intensity rain is shown in green. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NRL-MRY. The full animation can be viewed here: https://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/archive/PIA23431.gif