Back in the early 1980s, a rock band called White Noise enjoyed a burst of popularity on the Portland club and frat party circuit. The band cut one album, saw some radio air time and enjoyed a measure of regional success but was never able to cultivate a following beyond the Pacific Northwest.
For that, the planet should probably be grateful. Because instead of becoming a rock star, White Noise lead guitarist Chris Ruf became a key player in weather and climate research.
Ruf, a professor of Atmospheric Science and Electrical Engineering, directs the Remote Sensing group at Michigan, building instruments and developing algorithms that give us information about earth’s weather and climate collected from vantage points in space.
He also leads a $150 million NASA mission, the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), that will use a constellation of eight small weather satellites to better understand and predict hurricanes.
But it all began with rock and roll. During White Noise’s heyday, Ruf started designing amplifiers, mixers and synthesizers for the band and discovered a passion for working with electronics and troubleshooting problems. He had an undergraduate degree in physics, but when the band broke up, he headed to the University of Massachusetts to study electrical engineering.
Ruf’s advisor at UMass, Calvin Swift, had recently left NASA after 20 years, and Swift’s connections put his students in a position to work on NASA projects right away. Ruf went on to spend three years at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where he helped develop the satellite instrument that still gives us our most reliable sea level measurements.
Ruf left Southern California to get away from the smog and came to Michigan in 2000. He led U-M’s Space Physics Research Lab (SPRL) from 2006 until the spring of 2015. Instruments built at SPRL during his tenure are hard at work across the solar system, including the mass spectrometer on the Mars Curiosity rover and an instrument on the Messenger spacecraft that detected unexpected water around Mercury.
More recently, the lab has turned attention to building instruments for the smaller “cubesats,” that, until the CYGNSS project, haven’t been used for heavy-duty data-gathering. Typical large weather satellites are about the size of a bus; average size satellites are the size of a car. Each of the eight satellites in the CYGNSS program are about the size of a microwave oven.
Because they’re smaller, they’re less expensive, which means the mission can afford to send eight of them into orbit. A single satellite can measure any location once every two or three days, but eight CYGNSS cubesats, when positioned just right, will be able to capture measurements from any region of the planet about once every 12 minutes and any location every six hours or so.
That’ll allow researchers to see how tropical cyclones develop into hurricanes and make more informed predictions that will, hopefully, help people get out of the way.
The mission also represents a different way of doing things for NASA, which has worked with university researchers for years but has never put an entire mission in the hands of a university professor – until now.
“When I talk to people I know in Europe, they’ve told me they think its crazy,” Ruf said. “But if it works well, the thinking is this is a new paradigm for doing lower cost missions that are managed outside the NASA inner circle. It has the potential to become a long-lasting new option for how to do missions, and it’s really exciting to be part of that or to be leading it.”
Because satellites go around the planet, Ruf’s professional network does too. He frequently works with academics and space agencies in Europe and Japan to ensure that his instruments are working the way they’re supposed to, and he collaborates with ground station operators in other parts of the world.
And in addition to the science and technology that have always been at the heart of his work, Ruf has also advised federal agencies on behalf of the National Academy of Sciences, helping to ensure scientific devices like weather satellites receive an appropriate share of the radio spectrum.
“There’s the whole global climate change and anthropogenic forcing vs. natural cycles side of it – the societal relevance of the work,” he said. “It’s nice to know you’re doing something useful and helping to figure out what’s wrong with the world. I guess somebody else is going to figure out how to fix the problems, but at least I’m characterizing what the problems are very carefully.”