Tracking the Tropics – from space: How do astronauts help monitor weather from 250 miles above Earth?

National

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — When a storm develops in the tropics, there are a lot of people on the ground – from forecasters with the National Hurricane Center to local meteorologists – who monitor any potential developments. But did you know tropical activity is also monitored from more than 200 miles above Earth?

While they aren’t on Earth physically, astronauts on the International Space Station help those who are on the ground by getting a view of tropical weather – and other natural events – from high above the planet. Astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, who have been on the space station since April as part of the NASA SpaceX Crew-2 mission, recently spoke with our Tracking the Tropics team about keeping an eye on Earth while they’re in orbit.

“We have a beautiful vantage point up here 250 miles above the Earth. We have a number of windows throughout the space station but we have a really lovely viewing area called the cupola that has a series of windows together that gives us a beautiful view of the Earth as we go around,” McArthur explained.

Earlier this month, McArthur captured several photos of Tropical Storm Elsa as it moved through the Caribbean Sea. She tweeted the photos on July 4 with the message, “Stay safe everyone.”

“It was incredible to see. You could definitely see the formation – the circular formation – of the storm, and as we approached, we got some really interesting views,” McArthur said. “And it was also really interesting to me to see it kind of as the backdrop to some of the different structure we have on the space station. So I tried to capture that feeling as much as I could for folks on Earth to see that.”

McArthur said when she took the photos, she wasn’t sure how big or how dangerous it was going to be and wanted to share what it looked like from her vantage point. She added that the photos she and other astronauts take from the ISS help a program at NASA called Crew Earth Observations.

“So we will get asked to take photographs of certain things. Sometimes it’s tropical weather – it might be a volcanic eruption, it might be wildfires, sometimes it’s bird migrations. So we will get, throughout the day, notification that we’re going over different parts of the planet,” she said. “But normally our work is ongoing with the research projects that we’re doing onboard the space station.”

Science experiments that are launched to the space station also help track weather. Kimbrough noted that Cygnus, an uncrewed spacecraft, departed the space station in late June to deploy several CubeSats. CubeSats are tiny satellites that are described by NASA as “a class of research spacecraft.”

Kimbrough explained that one of the CubeSats deployed last month was an experiment to help researchers understand Earth’s ionosphere and lead to “better prediction of space weather.”

“One of the CubeSats was looking at the ionosphere and seeing what was going on with that above our planet,” he said. “We don’t get the research from it but the researchers on the ground certainly are the ones that are gonna have that data and know exactly what they’re looking for and will get out of that science experiment.”

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