A passenger airplane will advance a U-Michigan-led satellite mission to understand climate

New Zealand plane fitted with receivers will validate CYGNSS data and improve interpretation.


With an advanced GPS receiver installed on an Air New Zealand passenger plane, researchers aim to improve both forecasting of flash floods and understanding of how climate change is affecting the South Pacific island nation.

The effort expands upon the CYGNSS satellite mission, launched by NASA in 2016 and led by the University of Michigan. CYGNSS, which stands for Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, is a constellation of eight small satellites designed to study how tropical cyclones and hurricanes form and intensify.

“The collaboration with New Zealand is a unique opportunity for both CYGNSS and climate science as a whole,” said Chris Ruf, the Frederick Bartman Collegiate Professor of Climate and Space Science at U-M. “Satellite intercomparisons with airborne measurements are not new, but continuous, long-term operation on a commercial aircraft is. The sustained data record will allow us to track and characterize surface processes on time scales from days to seasons to years with unprecedented resolution.
“I am excited to see what we learn.”

The CYGNSS spacecraft use Global Navigation Satellite System Reflectometry (GNSS-R) receivers to capture GPS signals reflected off the surface of the ocean and measure wind speed within the core of severe storms. Since launch, the mission has expanded to include land-based observations such as soil moisture content, drought and flooding.

Under the new collaboration, one Air New Zealand Q300 passenger aircraft will be fitted with next generation GNSS-R receivers that will collect environmental data as it flies across the country multiple times daily. If this approach proves successful, Air New Zealand will explore introducing the technology more widely on its fleet.

While the CYGNSS satellites operates in a low Earth orbit at approximately 300 miles above the planet, the aircraft will cruise at just 16,000 feet. The lower altitude provides better sensitivity and higher spatial resolution to validate the CYGNSS measurements and improve their interpretation. The new receivers are designed and built by the U-M Physics Research Laboratory for NASA, and will be installed in late 2020.

To process the data collected by the aircraft, the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is establishing a Science Payload Operation Centre in the University of Auckland’s Department of Electrical, Computer and Software Engineering. The Centre will be developed by a joint team of researchers from the University of Auckland and the University of Canterbury, and is expected to be up and running in late 2020. The data will be processed and analyzed by NASA, New Zealand, and University of Michigan researchers, and NASA and New Zealand researchers plan to use the data for scientific research into the long-term impacts of climate change.