Hurricane Ian - How the Space Sector is Saving Lives

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Hurricane Ian has left millions without power, triggered billions in damages and caused at least 81 deaths, with many more reporting loved ones as missing.

After initially making its way through Cuba, the hurricane grew to span practically the entire state of Florida. After being downsized to a tropical storm, it regained hurricane strength and hit South Carolina. Homes, communities and businesses have been devastated by this historic storm.

The category 4 storm was nearly double the size of Hurricane Charley, with 150 mph wind and “biblical” storm surge reaching up to 12 feet. The huge amount of wind, rain and flooding have made this one of the worst hurricanes in Florida’s history. It was described by President Joe Biden as potentially the “deadliest” storm to ever hit the state.

With natural disasters like these on the rise, along with increasing intensity and unpredictability, more focus is moving towards disaster risk reduction and response.

Space technologies play a crucial part in crisis management and disaster response. They enable early warning, prevention and faster response time. The space sector has already proved vital in monitoring and assessing damage caused by Hurricane Ian.

NASA’s weather sensors onboard the International Space Station (ISS), TEMPEST (Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical Systems) and COWVR (Compact Ocean Wind Vector Radiometer), provided critical data on the hurricane. While studying the planet’s surface and atmosphere, the systems observed as the storm passed over the Caribbean Sea in low-Earth orbit. Astronauts onboard the ISS took pictures of the hurricane from 400 kilometres above Earth as it approached southern Cuba. The weather sensors streamed this data directly to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory via their Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) constellation. The information was with forecasters in under two hours of being collected, enabling early warning and evacuation for those in vulnerable areas.

Satellites also provided valuable data on the storm. Satellite imagery detailed the full extent of the life-threatening storm, allowing experts to track and monitor its path of destruction and create response plans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) even provided street-by-street satellite maps of affected areas, enabling residents to assess the damage to their homes even if they are inaccessible.

In other news, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk donated 120 Starlink satellites to southwest Florida, restoring internet access to parts of the state hit particularly hard by the storm. It has been reported that over 850,000 people in Florida still have no power.

“We are working with Elon Musk and Starlink satellite,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told reporters. “They are positioning those Starlink satellites to provide good coverage in southwest Florida and other affected areas. We are expecting 120 additional large Starlink units to deploy to Southwest Florida.”

In the face of disaster, space-based technologies allow us to stay ahead of the curve and act fast. As the frequency and severity of these natural disasters increases, just as is has done in the face of Hurricane Ian, the space sector’s capabilities will play a vital role in saving lives, minimising damage to affected areas and helping to rebuild communities.