Fun Frankenstorm Activity: Learn About How Scientists Can Predict ‘The Perfect Storm’ — Make a Weather Satellite at Home!

A Fun Space / Satellite Engineering Activity You Can Do At Home For Free!

In light of the upcoming “Frankenstorm” hurricane which is supposed to hit Eastern U.S. next week, we thought we’d post a fun activity about how you can make your own weather satellite at home (of course it won’t be able to predict the weather but it’s lots of fun):

Taiwan National Space Organization (NSPO)’s Formosat-II Weather Satellite

Image credit: EADS Astrium SAS/ NSPO (National Space Programme Office) of Taiwan

These girls did a project at the Taiwan International Science Fair, about Sudden Stratosphere Warming Using the Formosat-II Weather Satellite

During their trip to establish THL-Taiwan (known as 藏寶家 – Tsang Bao Jia), THL Co-Founders Penny Noyce and Barnas Monteith visited the Taiwan International Science & Engineering Fair, and saw a number of projects in Earth & Space Sciences about the Taiwan earth observation (imaging and sensing weather satellites) satellite series known as Formosat.  Formosat was developed with the collaboration of US, European and Taiwanese space agencies.  Formosat (and related project COSMIC) was designed, among other things, to provide highly accurate weather and related data to the scientific community, for current day weather, as well as long term studies of changes in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Formosat-I was designed to look at the ocean and ionosphere (the part of the atmosphere from 85 to 600km above Earth, which receives most of the effects of solar radiation from the sun).  Formosat-2 does what they call high resolution change detection (a fancy phrase meaning it’s really a giant digital camera), so it can help with the preparation for disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis and was useful in the emergency management for natural disasters such as Katrina (and because of its excellent resolution camera, it can also be used to monitor security situations such as nuclear power plant sites in unfriendly nations).  Brief info on the mission, direct from NSPO, can be seen here. Formosat-3 uses GPS to produce highly accurate coordinates for ionosphere and magnetometer (which measure the strength and direction of magnetic fields, like that of Earth itself) data.

The new COSMIC project (Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate system - based on the Formosat series mission) uses a number of Formosat-3 GPS mini-satellites working together to produce accurate weather data at various elevations above ground.  Thus instead of using data from just one expensive satellite, with one set of sensors, this more cost effective LEO (Low Earth Orbiting) satellite array of data can be used to more precisely predict and monitor the impact of severe weather such as typhoons/hurricanes (like the two below, that Barnas experienced this summer), and more.  The COSMIC system, jointly developed by Taiwan and the US is one of the most advanced weather systems in the sky today.  These satellites previously used to be launched from various types of space vehicles in the US, including US Space Shuttle, and in fact a Taiwan satellite mission was in the last flight of the US Space Shuttle project.

A weather satellite view of two typhoons which struck Taiwan in rapid succession this year (which was supposed to become a “Frankenstorm” of sorts but never did)…

A closeup view of one of the typhoons, using Infrared (IR) data imaging, as opposed to regular optical imaging

So, with data from Formosat and similar weather satellites, students can not only develop new formulas and methods for predicting and planning for current day weather, but also track global trends, and even climate shifts.  The good thing about science fair projects of this type is that a large amount of the data is freely available online, as it is from a publicly funded agency.  From there ,you can do an infinite number of different types of computer simulations and develop new formulas which could potentially be useful to meteorologists throughout the world.

Penny and Barnas visited Taiwan’s NSPO to see how they make the real Formosat / COSMIC satellites

Following the science fair, Penny and Barnas also visited NSPO this year – the NASA of Taiwan, based around the center of the island in Hsinchu, Taiwan.   We learned that NSPO is planning not only to expand its COSMIC multi-satellite weather array program (see a youtube video about COSMIC here), but that it is working closely with US’s NOAA (US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) to do so.

A Display about NSPO (Taiwan’s NASA), and the various satellites they have launched, many of which were collaborations with the US, and are focused on weather data

A launch vehicle, and a large model of one of  NSPO’s weather satellites

Our guide at NSPO provided us with a cool and simple activity that you can do at home if you have an interest in meteorology or aerospace science.  He provided us with a piece of paper, containing all the parts of Taiwan’s Formosat-II satellite, which you can cut out, glue together (using general purpose, paper or wood glue), and pointed us to online images of what the real satellite looks like.  The satellite model contains accurate scale paper replicas of the solar panels (how the satellite obtains energy to power its instruments), it’s propulsion system (how the satellite can move around), and its body which contains various instruments (to monitor the satellite, collect data, and then send it back to Earth to be studied).  You can see some of the images and read more about the program here.

Here’s Barnas, on the ground, cutting out parts with a razor knife to make his paper weather satellite

Here is Barnas recently making his Formosat-II satellite model, using just some paper, glue and an eXacto razor knife (though you can probably just use safety scissors).  Be patient – this is medium difficulty project for a middle school student.  It takes a few hours (2-3 hours) for an adult to carefully cut out and glue all the parts together, to make a final product like the one below, working at a normal pace, so expect that it may take a bit longer for a child:

Here are all the parts, cut out

You can download and print the Formosat-II satellite PDF files (using a color printer of any type) to make a cool satellite model, via the links below.  There are really no accompanying directions, so it’s really a bit of a puzzle – but that’s what makes it more fun!  [Credit: Taiwan R.O.C. NSPO, produced this paper kit, for educational, non commercial purposes]

One view of the final product

Another View…

Yet another view

And, one final view.. a thing of beauty

Download your own 2 page cutout sheets, to print yourself in full color, here:  NSPO-Formosat-II-Cutout-2pages PDF

What you’ll need:

  • Download the 2 page cutout above and print using any reasonably good color printer (tip: print 2 copies each in case you mess up; also here’s a tip: we suggest you reinforce the blue solar panel either by printing and cutting 2 of them and gluing them back to back, or use a hard piece of colored paper and glue it to the bottom of the panel to make it stronger and more visually appealing)
  • Either an Exacto-type razor knife or good scissors
  • Strong paper or wood glue (and a toothpick or other object to apply the glue)
  • The pictures above, of the final model, will provide some clues about how to put it all together.  However, you may also want to download and print some pictures of Formosat-II  (or preferably, to be environmentally friendly, just google them and leave them open on a laptop screen which you can occasionally check as a reference for how the satellite looks).
  • Aluminum foil (optional: this is only if you want to cut out aluminum foil and place around portions of the satellite to make it look more interesting)
  • Thin string, preferably transparent fishing line, which you can tie loosely around your satellite and hang from something in your room, so it looks like it’s floating in space
  • Patience – again, there’s no instructions, and you need to research how the satellite looks yourself, so it’s both a fun and challenging project, requiring some preparation — and hopefully some learning, along the way (you can start with the several links provided in this blog post).

One of our scientist-authors at THL, Micheal Erb, is studying variations of the orbit of the Earth, around the sun, using a number of scientific tools, and one of them is satellite data.  His weather mystery/detective story book, which is available at THL’s online store, as well as is called “Kelvin McCloud and the Seaside Storm”.

THL will soon be releasing a weather activity kit to accompany this book, expected to be released later this year.

If you have fun making your satellite, and want to purchase a kit, we recommend taking a look at the upcoming THL solar kit series – we’ve got cars, fans, plant watering kits and more.  Nearly all satellites use photovoltaic (solar) energy in one way or another, and this is a fun way to learn more about how you can make energy just by putting a panel out side, and facing it toward the sun.


The Ring of Fire : Solar Eclipse 2012 / How To View An Eclipse

 ”I fell into a burning of fire

I went down, down, down and the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire

The ring of fire… ” – Johnny Cash



The “ring of fire” has a lot more meaning than the popular 1963 song by Johnny Cash, repopularized by the 2005 movie, “Walk the Line”.   That’s what scientists are calling this latest full solar eclipse.  It is a full annular (ring) eclipse of the sun, that only happens every few decades or so — depending on where you live.   The hydrogen based fire of the sun is eclipsed by the shadow of the moon revolving around the Earth, such that the moon appears to be a small dark shadow with a slightly smaller diameter than the bright, radioactive sun.  This most recent eclipse happens to have “peaked” both in certain parts of Asia and certain parts of the US, separated by 12 hours or more of time zone.   It resembled a “ring of fire” because it looked just like the sun was a burning ring of fire, with a moon in the middle of it.

The moon revolves around the Earth such that it has a full rotation to the same point around Earth around every 27.3 days (a sidereal  month), in large part because it is 385,000 km away from the center of the Earth.   So, it doesn’t move as fast as the Earth can turn around one full axis (24 hrs).  Furthermore, the sun pulls at the moon with over twice the strength of the Earth.  So, the moon’s orbit around the Earth changes all the time, and as such, given all the different variables it can be very difficult to determine when a solar eclipse will occur.

At THL Asia, based in Taipei, despite relatively rainy and stormy weather, we were able to see the solar eclipse at around 6:46 AM, which was slightly after its supposed peak.  However, our view of the eclipse was not quite the same as south of us – in Vietnam or Southern Fujian Province (where the author of this blog normally lives these days); we had only a partial solar eclipse, in between the clouds due to lots of increased year over year rain activity.

Normal, cloudy view of rainy Houshanpi – same mountain as below

According to most doctors and scientists, you should not look into the sun directly, eclipse or not, because it is harmful to the eyes.  So, we at THL Asia used 3 different types of filtration methods to see the solar eclipse and document its progress along its pathway, which lasted a total of 1.5-2 hours.


The first method we tried was the pinhole method, in which you poke a 1mm diameter hole in a piece of cardboard (either solid thin cardboard like you find in the back of calendars or cereal/packaging boxes, or even corrugated cardboard, if you are careful), and shine it on a piece of white paper from a few inches away.  Generally this 1mm thickness is the thickness of a ballpoint pen tip, but can be plus or minus.

The cardboard & pinholes used for the eclipse viewing experiment, compared to a US penny and 1 New Taiwan Dollar (NTD)

So, try different objects like paperclips, clothespines etc.  Make sure you try things than generate perfect circles — and make sure you do multiple holes an inch or so apart so you can shine it on a standard piece of 8.5×11″ or equivalent white paper to see the results are all the same.  These are the results we achieved (Note the brighter ones were actually the larger pinholes — but the clear ones were the smaller pinholes.  Too small of a diameter shows nothing at all; so you should experiment to find what diameter works best for you):

Cardboard-pinhole reflections of the solar eclipse against a white piece of paper, a few inches below a piece of cardboard with various small holes


View of the pinhole cardboard against a white piece of paper underneath — held 7-9 in apart; pictures taken from different angles will show different sizes/proportions  of circles/ellipses.

The second method we tried was reflecting the sun from a high clarity mirror to a white wall, through the pinholes on the same piece of cardboard.  Multiple pinholes were made, of various diameters, ranging from needles to pen-tip-holes, to holes as large as the diameter as a regular # 2 pencil.  You can see that the different diameters resulted in different sized reflections.  Try to establish a good, bright reflection using different depths, ranging from 1inch to 1 foot away from the surface of the mirror, and reflect the light up to 6 feet away, with direct sunlight, so you can see where the position of the eclipse is.


Reflections of various pinhole representations of the solar eclipse on a white wall, reflected from a high clarity mirror – each one ie not terribly bright but several inches wide, and the entire room of people can view them

More reflected images of the eclipse

The last method we tried was when the sun died out a bit — and it turned out the be the best.  When the sun is completely behind a cloud and there is no direct sunglight you can use dual polarized glasses and try to look at the sun directly for a second.  Or, preferable, to avoid permanent damage to your eyes, you can take dual polarized sunglasses and angle them against a digital camera to find the appropriate angle to look at the sun.  Make sure to only look at the sun through the digital display (LCD/LED display) so that you don’t hurt your eyesight.   Although that method was a bit tricky , we got   some of the best results!


Here you see a sunglasses-filtered picture of the eclipse – the big bar to the left of the center is the edge of the sunglasses, as taken by a digital camera – right side polarized

Closeup of same picture – note how real picture is opposite of the reflection in the pinhole pictures



Here you see the same picture overlayed with a diagram of where the moon would be at the approximately correct scale (though the contrast compared to outer space, as well as the haze of the Earth atmosphere, blocks out the real outline of the moon, and all you see is a “shadow”)

Sun to the left of the glasses frame – right side is polarized, left side is not


Closeup of the unfiltered pic

Try these different method, or use a professional filter or binoculars/telescopes or magnifying glasses, which are applied to a piece of white paper from several inches away.  This can be tricky though.  The methods described above are quite easy and can be figured out in a matter of minutes.  Try them all, if you have time (like a 2 hour solar eclipse window) and see what you can achieve too!!  Again this is only for solar eclipses — if there is a lunar eclipse, you can try another techniques, which are much easier than a solar eclipse– check out this NASA site here, and click around to find additional lunar eclipses in the future:   NASA eclipse link .


Here you see the cardboard with various-diameter pinholes, along with the flat mirror, and the polarized sunglasses used by Barnas Monteith when viewing the eclipse above the mountains in Houshanpi, Taipei, Taiwan.

Michael Erb, a scientist from Rutgers University, who is specifically focused on studying the orbit of the Earth around the sun and how it affects long term climate change, is a THL featured first time author.  His recent book “Kelvin McCloud and the Seaside Storm” is about weather/meteorology science and how it can be used to solve science/CSI mysteriies — it can be purchased at our online THL store: .