Chinese Scientists Launch Weather Rocket From Semi-Submersible Vehicle for Typhoon Measurements

Photo: Siping Zheng

In an apparent first, Chinese scientists have launched a weather-observing rocket from an uncrewed semi-submersible vehicle (USSV). I guess anything can be a “first” if no one has done it before and it’s specific enough.


Researchers at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Scientists developed the vehicle specifically for the purpose of making atmospheric measurements, including launching rockets. But there’s a reason behind the launch: to study the interaction between the air and the sea and the weather it produces, like fog and powerful tropical cyclones

Though important, these measurements can be difficult or limiting due to the types of equipment available: buoys, ships, or aircraft. China has relatively few islands or platforms to perform these measurements from in the expanse of ocean bordering the country, according to the paper published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

The researchers are therefore testing out semi-submerged vehicles, ones where the vessel travels underwater but the science equipment sits above the surface. The paper explains that these vehicles are durable, and since they’re bottom-heavy, they’re self-righting like a Weeble. The vehicle also has the capabilities to launch a rocketsonde, or a device that launches into the air and then falls back down to the ocean, taking atmospheric data along the way. The rocketsonde launched from the uncrewed vehicle allows researchers to gather atmospheric data in conditions that would prohibit the use of a weather balloon, like a typhoon.

The scientists carried out trials in rivers and in the ocean from May 2016 to November 2017. The devices onboard the semi-submersible functioned properly, according to the paper, and the researchers were able to launch four rocketsondes to a maximum height of 1,230 meters (4,035 feet), receiving near real-time data on the air pressure and temperature as well as the wind speed and direction.

Perhaps in the near future, China will rely on rockets launched from semi-submersibles during powerful storms.

Former Gizmodo physics writer and founder of Birdmodo, now a science communicator specializing in quantum computing and birds



This is HUGE, REALLY HUGE. First of all, this isn’t a “so specific no one cares” like the Guinness record for the longest distance hopped backwards on one foot or something. THis has two huge implications, one technological one military/geopolitical.

On the technological level, this is the first time an autonomous system has deployed another autonomous system of this nature... that’s a step towards removing people from the chain, as well as the massive cost savings and safety benefit of using floating autonomous platforms placed in the optimal location for orbital injection while still being safe from population centers. Right now we have to pick our rocket bases based on a compromise of proximity to support and assembly areas, safety for heavily-populated areas if something goes wrong, and being close enough to the equator in the proper position to reduce the fuel requirement to get to orbit in the proper trajectory.  Going from this to orbit-capable rockets is a matter of scale, not differing technology.

Secondly, this is massive militarily. Submarines changed warfare forever, due to something called “depressed trajectory”. Basically, ICBM fire from Russia would have to go very high and come down, giving 35+ minutes of warning and a long window to try to intercept it. Sure they’ll do things on the way down like throw decoys and change trajectory to try to avoid countermeasures, but you’ve got a long time to try. A depressed trajectory launched from a sub in the ocean, even hundreds of miles offshore, doesn’t go that high, it launches along a “depressed trajectory”, not all the way to orbit and down. This means you have seven to eight minutes of warning, it’s moving low and fast and even if you know its target (which you probably won’t) it’s hard to catch, especially because it’ll take time out of your precious eight minutes to realize what’s happening.

Why does this matter? Well detecting and stopping an attack from a sub after launch is impossible, so the only real way to deal with the situation is knowing when the subs are taking up launch positions. Throughout the cold war US and Soviet subs chased each other around the world keeping tabs on one another, and the US got damned good at it, our ‘zoomers’ (fast attack subs, as opposed to ‘boomers’— ballistic missile subs) have the technology to sniff out practically any submarine, though quiet diesel-electric-propelled models cause some difficulty because the engines make less noise than a reactor when in electric mode. The thing is? A LOT of noise on a submarine is generated not by the systems that actually prosecute its mission, but the systems required to keep the needy meatsacks that run the thing alive: so called “hotel systems” like temperature control, water supply and air ventilation, food supply, and the routine activities of the crew. Even though submariners live an extremely spartan life without access to things many of us take for granted like laundry facilities, they still need the essentials of life. Plus all the supplies and systems needed to supply the crew take SPACE. Counting the space for moving around the ship, bunking (even if bunking is notoriously sparse and small, as any sailor who ever found themselves bunkmates with a ton of torpex in the form of a ADCAP warhead can tell you), provisions storage, emergency equipment, galley, what little recreational facilities are available, heads, and more. Take out the crew and you take out more than half the cubic volume of the ship, taking all of the above into account. this means half the volume to hit with an accoustic ‘ping’ of active sonar. And on top of that, you take out the ventilation fans, desalination plant, and other noise-making systems and get rid of crew noise. Machines don’t cough, or drop a wrench. The result is the perfect submarine.

This is a demonstration, just like the Chinese taking out an aging weather satellite wasn’t about being responsible and cleaning up low-earth orbit of debris, it was a “look we can take satellites right out of orbit now!” said while looking the US square in the eye. This is a demonstration of capability aimed at the international audience.