After nearly two and a half years in orbit, a shoebox-size weather satellite reported home one last time before plunging into Earth’s atmosphere and burning up on Christmas Eve 2020. RainCube (Radar in a CubeSat) was a technology demonstration meant to show that shrinking a weather radar into a low-cost, miniature satellite could provide science-quality data.
The satellite was deployed on July 13, 2018, from the International Space Station and had a primary mission duration of three months. According to NASA, the CubeSat’s instrument used radar to identify raindrops, ice and snowflakes, and provided scientists with pictures of what was happening inside of storms around the world.
Radar instruments on full-size Earth-observing satellites have carried out such measurements for years. “But the key thing with RainCube wasn’t bringing in new science,” said Simone Tanelli, RainCube principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. “Instead, it was showing that we could give you similar data with a box that’s roughly 100 times smaller in volume than a full-size satellite.”
The satellite endured far longer than three months, allowing researchers to collect data on hurricanes Marco and Laura in 2020 at the same time as another CubeSat, TEMPEST-D. The two CubeSats used different types of instruments to collect disparate, but complementary, observations that provided researchers with 3D data on storms.
“That opened the door to something that Earth scientists are getting really excited about, which is using multiple CubeSats at the same time to study our planet,” concluded Shannon Statham, RainCube project manager at JPL.