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Earth from Orbit: Every Day is Earth Day for NOAA Satellites

April 22, 2021

To celebrate Earth Day, we are sharing stunning views of our beautiful planet, captured by NOAA satellites.

Since 1970, NOAA satellites have been monitoring Earth’s weather, environment, oceans, and climate. They provide critical information that feeds forecasts and warns us of severe weather and environmental hazards. NOAA operates two primary types of satellites: geostationary and polar-orbiting.

Geostationary satellites orbit 22,236 miles above the equator at speeds equal to Earth’s rotation. This means they continuously view the same area. Because they stay above a fixed spot on the surface, they provide constant vigil to identify and track severe weather conditions and environmental hazards. Information from geostationary satellites is used for short-term (1-2 day) forecasts and also for tracking storm systems in real-time.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites – R Series (GOES-R) is NOAA’s newest generation of geostationary satellites. GOES-16, in operations as GOES East, keeps watch over most of North America, including the contiguous United States and Mexico, as well as Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west coast of Africa. GOES-17, which serves as GOES-West, watches over the western continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand.

GOES-16 and GOES-17 each carry an imager and a lightning mapper that provide critical data about Earth’s weather and environment.

Polar-orbiting satellites circle the globe from the North Pole to the South Pole 14 times a day. They image the entire Earth at least twice daily, from 512 miles above its surface. Earth rotates counterclockwise underneath the path of the satellites, resulting in a different view with each orbit.

Global data from polar-orbiting satellites, including atmospheric temperature and moisture profiles, are used in numerical weather models to generate weather forecasts up to seven days out. Polar-orbiting satellites observe the whole world in higher resolution than GOES satellites, allowing for a broader and more detailed view of weather patterns and environmental conditions.

NOAA’s polar-orbiting satellites, the Joint Polar Satellite System’s (JPSS) NOAA-20 and NOAA/NASA Suomi-NPP, carry instruments not available on GOES, including a microwave sounding instrument, which allows scientists to see through clouds to what lies beneath. The polar satellites also carry the Day-Night Band, which enables scientists and forecasters to see cloud patterns at night, thanks to reflected moonlight.

Each of the geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites carries an advanced imager for providing detailed images of Earth. The imagers have many “channels,” each designed to detect specific features, such as cloud type, atmospheric water vapor, ozone, carbon dioxide, or areas of ice or snow. Combining data from multiple channels provides even more information for forecasters.

NOAA also operates additional satellites in low-Earth orbit and a deep space satellite at Lagrange point 1, approximately one million miles away from Earth. On board NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite is NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) instrument that watches Earth.

Different vantage points, geographic coverage, instrumentation, and imaging frequency from NOAA satellites offer unique information about our home planet. Together, they provide complementary measurements for a complete picture of what’s happening on Earth.

NOAA satellites see it all—hurricanes, severe thunderstorms, lightning, fires, dust storms, air quality, fog, volcanic eruptions, vegetation, snow and ice cover, flooding, sea and land surface temperature, ocean health and more. They can even track ship traffic and power outages. Every day, NOAA satellites provide critical information to keep us informed and help us stay safe. At NOAA, each day is Earth Day.