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The Road to Modern Weather Satellites: NOAA and NASA Celebrate 60 Years of America in Space



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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

As NOAA’s next-generation weather satellites continually improve weather forecasts in the United States and beyond, it’s worth remembering how we got to where we are today. Today marks the 60th anniversary of America’s first successful satellite launch, ushering in a new era of space exploration and scientific discovery. 

The three men behind the successful launch of Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958:  Dr. William H. Pickering (left), Dr. James A. van Allen (center) and Dr. Wernher von Braun (right). (Credit: NASA)
The three men behind the successful launch of Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958: 
Dr. William H. Pickering (left), Dr. James A. van Allen (center) and Dr. Wernher
von Braun (right). (Credit: NASA)

To celebrate this milestone, let’s take a look back at NASA’s launch of Explorer 1 and how it paved the way for today’s modern-day weather satellites.

Explorer 1. NASA launched America’s first Earth-orbiting satellite late in the evening on January 31, 1958 (at 10:48 p.m. local time) from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This sleek, pencil-shaped satellite was nearly 7 feet long and a half-foot wide, and weighed just over 30 pounds. The launch occurred barely four months after the Soviet Union successfully sent Sputnik 1, the world’s first manmade satellite, into space.

Once in orbit, NASA’s Explorer 1 satellite circled the Earth once every 114.8 minutes, or about 12½ times daily - looping around our planet as close as 220 miles or as far as 1,560 miles away. Explorer 1 became famous for discovering Earth’s Van Allen Belts, a zone of highly charged electric particles in Earth’s electromagnetic field that shields our planet from the sun’s damaging cosmic rays. 

The road to weather satellites

The launch of Sputnik and Explorer 1 not only heralded a new Space Age, but also paved the way for America’s weather observation satellite program. Two years after Explorer 1 headed to space, NASA launched the first television infrared observation satellite (TIROS-1, for short) in April of 1960. 

The TIROS-1 satellite. (NASA)
The TIROS-1 satellite. (NASA)

Equipped with two TV cameras and two video recorders, the spacecraft orbited 450 miles above Earth, relaying nearly 20,000 images of clouds and storm systems moving across our planet.

Though TIROS-1 was operational for only 78 days, the images it transmitted underscored the importance of monitoring global weather conditions from space - still a novel concept in the early 1960s. The success of TIROS-1 fueled demand for additional, more technologically advanced weather observation satellites that could gather more data and provide higher-resolution imagery.

The TIROS-1 satellite first image

By 1970, atmospheric scientists and engineers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration celebrated their own milestone: On December 11 that year, NOAA’s first polar-orbiting satellite, NOAA-1, was launched into space. The 674-pound satellite, a joint NOAA/NASA venture, would provide detailed cloud imagery and make significant contributions to understanding Earth’s radiation budget and monitoring space weather. 

NOAA’s first geostationary Earth-orbiting satellite, GOES-1.
NOAA’s first geostationary Earth-orbiting satellite, GOES-1.

Five years later, on October 16, 1975, NOAA launched GOES-1, the world’s first geostationary operational environmental satellite. From its perch above Earth some 22,000 miles away, GOES-1 became an essential tool used by NOAA’s National Weather Service. The revolutionary satellite gave forecasters a near-real time view of the Earth’s changing atmosphere from a fixed location, providing imagery and data of storms and severe weather events as they unfolded.

NOAA’s satellite program today

Today, 60 years after Explorer 1 rocketed into space, NOAA and its partners at NASA have continued to improve our nation’s weather satellite infrastructure. 

On November 17, 2017, NOAA successfully launched the first satellite in its Joint-Polar Satellite System series, NOAA-20, which will become operational later this year. NOAA-20 will provide data critical to 3-7 day weather forecasts, supporting advance warning of severe weather events. 

In December 2017, NOAA’s newest geostationary satellite, GOES-16, joined NOAA’s operational observation network in the GOES East position, providing forecasters with sharper, more defined images of severe storms, hurricanes, wildfires and other weather hazards over the Western Hemisphere in near-real time. 

GOES East captures the powerful ‘bomb cyclone’ moving up the U.S. East Coast on January 4, 2018.
GOES East captures the powerful ‘bomb cyclone’ moving up the U.S. East Coast on January 4, 2018.

GOES East will soon be joined by its sister satellite, GOES-S, which is set to launch on March 1, 2018. The second in the next-generation GOES-R series of geostationary Earth-orbiting satellites, GOES-S will provide critical new data and imagery of the western United States, Alaska and Hawaii, which will improve forecasts and warning lead times for severe weather events and environmental hazards, including severe storms, coastal fog, and wildfires.

Today, it’s easy to take for granted our increasingly accurate weather forecasts or the stunning, high-definition Earth-satellite imagery we can view on our home computers (or even cell phones) at the tap of a button. These scientific and technological advancements can be traced back to NASA’s pioneering efforts, when America’s very first satellite, Explorer 1, was launched into space six decades ago.