The Future of Weather Satellites

A look at current and future weather satellite capabilities


The defense and intelligence communities have an increasing need for the timeliest and most accurate information on cloud characterization, soil moisture, snow depth, cyclone intensity, and ocean winds.

Throughout history, weather information has been sourced from balloons, ships, airplanes, and radar. Today, satellites provide the backbone for global coverage and weather models, and the new generation of satellites will help us better understand storms and weather patterns. Their effectiveness depends on each satellite’s orbit, instruments, and technologies, as well as the time lag between data capture and availability.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates two types of satellites: polar operational environmental satellites (POES), which fly 540 miles above Earth’s surface and provide full global coverage and weather predictions for up to a week in the future; and geostationary operational environmental satellites (GOES), which remain stationary above the equator at an altitude of 22,300 miles and provide near-continuous observation of a fixed region. POES help predict the intensity and location of severe weather events several days in advance, such as in the case of the infamous “left hook” track of Hurricane Sandy.

NOAA is working with NASA to develop the next generation of POES, called the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), which is planned for launch in 2017. Offering full global coverage twice a day, the system will increase timeliness and accuracy of public warnings. JPSS includes a Cross-track Infrared Sounder to measure atmospheric temperature and water vapor, which will improve both short-term weather “nowcasting,” long-term forecasting, and our understanding of major shifts like El Niño.

The GOES-R Series, also a collaboration between NOAA and NASA, is the next generation of geostationary systems. It is expected to launch in 2016 with Harris’ Advanced Baseline Imager and Lockheed Martin’s lightning mapper, both of which will provide more advanced imaging of environmental phenomena that directly affect public safety.

NASA’s ISS-RapidScat, which launched in 2014 and sits outside the International Space Station, provides data about wind speed and direction over the ocean. The scatterometer plays a critical role in producing weather forecasts that inform ship deployments and rerouting. NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite was launched into a polar orbit this year and uses a radiometer and spinning antenna to measure the water in the top two inches of soil, offering high-resolution data for local weather forecasts, drought early warnings, and flood warnings. Further, SMAP provides operational benefits for DoD with its ability to assess terrain and ice characteristics as well as forecast dust and fog.

The U.S. also uses satellite data from other countries. For example, data from Japan’s new Himawari-8 weather satellite may be factored into U.S. weather models.

However, not every country that shares weather information is a U.S. ally, and recent discussions have brought to the forefront the question of how much the U.S. should depend on certain nations for this data. As some satellites retire, specifically, Meteosat-7—a European satellite that provides Indian Ocean and Middle East coverage—the U.S. may find a gap in weather coverage in a critical area of the world.

Feature image courtesy of Harris

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Posted in: Features   Tagged in: 2015 Issue 3, Remote Sensing, Small Sats, Weather

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