2010 Marks 50 Years of NOAA Satellites Keeping Track of Weather and Climate
Fifty years ago on April 1, 1960, the world's first weather satellite lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and opened a new and exciting dimension in weather forecasting. Top leaders from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hailed the milestone as an example of their agencies' strong partnership and commitment to flying the best satellites today and beyond.
"This satellite forever changed weather forecasting," said Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA administrator.
Early Weather Forecasting
The first image from the satellite, known as TIROS-1 (Television Infrared Observation 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. TIROS-1, a polar-orbiting satellite, weighed 270 pounds and carried two cameras and two video recorders. The satellite only lasted 78 days, but its impact is visible today.
"Since TIROS-1, meteorologists have far greater information about severe weather and can issue more accurate forecasts and warnings that save lives and protect property," said Dr. Lubchenco.
Throughout the 1960s, each TIROS spacecraft carried increasingly advanced instruments and technology. By 1965, meteorologists combined 450 TIROS images into the first global view of the world's weather, picking up a line of clouds in the Pacific barreling toward the United States.
From 1966 to 1969, nine new satellites in the next series, named ESSA, for the Environmental Science Services Administration, were launched. When NOAA was officially established in October 1970, the polar satellites began taking on the name of the new agency, once they reached orbit.
Breakthrough Images from Space
In 1975, the first Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) was launched to its orbit 22,300 miles into space. Its ability to orbit in sync with the Earth's rotation, combined with the polar-orbiting satellites, gave NOAA's forecasting efforts a powerful one-two punch.
"We could not provide skillful hurricane forecasts without the crucial imagery and data from geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites," said Chris Landsea, the science operations officer at NOAA's National Hurricane Center in Miami. "Before satellites, tropical storms and hurricanes were often missed if they stayed out over the open ocean. Now, with the satellites, we know tropical storms and hurricanes have swings in numbers from decade to decade," he added.
When a series of more advanced polar satellites, called TIROS-N, were launched between 1978 and 1981, the program became known officially as the Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites, or POES.
With continued improvements of the instruments and technology, POES spacecraft began giving scientists the ability to track changes in climate - from the subtle onset of drought and its impacts on vegetation, to monitoring global sea-surface temperatures that signal atmospheric phenomena, such as El Nino and La Nina
"Securing critical climate data records from the advanced sensors flying on NOAA satellites helps us understand the Earth's changing climate," said Dr. Tom Karl, director of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, who also heads the emerging NOAA Climate Service. "For 50 years, NOAA satellites have advanced our ability to monitor the Earth's climate and will continue to provide critical data in the years to come."
On February 6, 2009, the last of the TIROS satellites, NOAA N-Prime, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Now called NOAA-19, the satellite provides coverage for the afternoon orbit while a European satellite, through a partnership with NOAA and the European space agency, or EUMETSAT, handles the morning orbit.