QuikSCAT's last hurrah

3 December 2009  •  Marine forecasters are staring into a data void after the loss of the QuikSCAT (Quick Scatterometer) satellite. Eight years beyond its projected two-year run, the satellite's useful life ended on 23 November as the bearings that allowed its antenna to spin finally ground to a halt. Over the last decade, the polar-orbiting satellite obtained radar data from the ocean surface that allowed scientists to infer wind speeds. QuickSCAT's 1,800-kilometer-wide swath crossed most of the world's oceans twice each day. The data provided a unique window on tropical cyclones that formed outside the range of hurricane-hunter aircraft. Shortly after the failure, NASA was reviewing options for making use of the satellite's limited data stream.

QuikSCAT depiction

Europe's Advanced Scatterometer (ASCAT) satellite will help fill the gap left by QuikSCAT, though its resolution is twice as coarse. The earliest a U.S. replacement might fly, if funded by Congress, would be 2016 aboard a Japanese Space Agency satellite.

During his 2007 tenure as director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center, William Proenza cautioned that the loss of QuikSCAT could jeopardize Atlantic hurricane forecasting, though others disagreed. In the realm of general wind and wave outlooks, there's less controversy. "The loss of the QuikSCAT data will have a huge impact on marine forecasting worldwide," says Hugh Cobb, head of NHC's Tropical Analysis and Forecast Branch.