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In a First, China Launches Weather Observation Rockets from a Robotic Ship at Sea

Launching research rockets from crewless marine vehicles could mean improved access to atmospheric data over the oceans.

ByKatherine J. WuNOVA NextNOVA Next
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A robotic semi-submersible vehicle developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences during a sea trial in Bohai Bay conducted in June 2017. Image Credit: Siping Zheng

A team of Chinese scientists has successfully tested the world’s first robotic, semi-submersible boat for launching weather rockets.

According to a paper published last week in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Science that describes the trials, the new technology could help meteorologists fill in crucial gaps in atmospheric data and thus better predict the weather.

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The researchers used the boat to launch rocketsondes, rockets carrying meteorological instruments, in brief flights as high as five miles up in the atmosphere, beyond the reach of weather balloons.

Such rockets are typically shot off from land, but having marine launch pads could make it possible to surveil the skies over the nearly three-quarters of Earth’s surface that’s blanketed by oceans.

“[These boats are] ideal platform[s] for marine meteorological environmental monitoring,” study author Jun Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Atmospheric Physics said in a statement. “The atmospheric profile information provided... can improve the accuracy of numerical weather forecasts at sea and in coastal zones.”

During their test runs, which were conducted in 2016 and 2017, the researchers used their boat-rocket combo to collect real-time data, including measurements of sea surface temperatures, wind speed, and humidity, from both river and ocean regions in and around China.

Crewless boats like this one aren’t new, but this is the first time they’ve been used to deploy rocketsondes. Unlike planes or ships, which are expensive to maintain and vulnerable to severe weather conditions at sea, robotic vehicles can be relatively cheap and hardy enough to withstand long periods in rough seas.

With this expansion of launch space, study author Hongbin Chen, an atmospheric and marine scientist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, only expects rocketsondes to become “more economical and applicable in the future.”

The team is now working on creating a network of boats to monitor typhoons and other adverse weather events in the Pacific Ocean.

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