Celebrating the World’s First Meteorological Satellite:TIROS-1

April 1, 2016

An artist rendering of the instruments aboard the TIROS-1 satellite Credit: NASA

An artist rendering of the instruments aboard the TIROS-1 satellite Credit: NASA

On October 4, 1957, the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to be successfully placed in orbit around Earth. The feat ushered in the Space Age and sparked a space race between the United States and its Cold War rival.

This scramble for spaceflight superiority led to the establishment of our nation’s early space programs and the launch of Explorer-1 in 1958, the first operational U.S. satellite.

The United States’ earliest attempts to see Earth’s weather from space began in the 1950s. Several experimental programs were developed and, by 1959, the first successful metrological experiment made its way to space onboard the Explorer VII satellite.

Then, 56 years ago today on April 1, 1960, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Television Infra-Red Observation Satellite (TIROS-1), the world’s first successful weather satellite. Weighing approximately 270 pounds and carrying two TV cameras and two video recorders, the satellite provided weather forecasters their first ever view of cloud formations as they developed around the globe.

One of the first images from the TIROS-1 satellite, April 1, 1960. Credit: NASA

One of the first images from the TIROS-1 satellite, April 1, 1960. Credit: NASA

TIROS-1 orbited 450 miles above Earth and communicated with two command and data acquisition stations. When the satellite was in range of a station and the data was read out, the images (up to 32 could be recorded for playback) were recorded on 35-mm film for making prints.

Although the satellite operated for only 78 days, TIROS-1 sent back 19,389 usable pictures, proving the worth of weather observing satellites to the world and opening the door for the weather systems of the future. The first image from the satellite was a fuzzy picture of thick bands and clusters of clouds over the United States. An image captured a few days later revealed a typhoon about a 1,000 miles east of Australia. 

Over the next several years the scientists and technologists at NASA and the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA) designed, built, and launched multiple TIROS missions, each carrying increasingly advanced technology. In 1970, 10 years after the launch of TIROS-1, NOAA was established in recognition of the value and importance of a meteorological agency supported by space-based observation.

Inheriting the recently launched Improved TIROS Operational System (ITOS-1) from their predecessor the ESSA, NOAA continued to advance the operational applications of weather satellites. As the capabilities of these satellites improved, they would evolve into NOAA’s current polar-orbiting satellites, the backbone of the global overserving system.

Soon after the launches of the ITOS satellites, the Synchronous Meteorological Satellite (SMS-1) became the first prototype geostationary satellite in 1974. Just a year later, in 1975, the SMS series of satellites would become the first operational Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) in orbit with the launch of GOES-1.

IIROS-1 Satellite

The TIROS-1 satellite. Credit: NASA

Now, with the next generation of environmental observation satellites on the horizon, NOAA is poised to once again significantly improve weather forecasting and severe weather prediction. GOES-R, NOAA’s next generation geostationary satellite, is scheduled to launch October 2016 and will provide the most significant upgrade in geostationary observations since the launch of the GOES-I series in 1994.

Following GOES-R, the next satellite scheduled to launch is NOAA’s JPSS-1. Once operational, JPSS-1, or NOAA-20, will take advantage of its five advanced, highly-sensitive instruments, similar to those currently being successfully flown on board the NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite.