Weather Satellites
Today, it would be difficult to imagine preparing a forecast without the visual image of the earth's atmosphere instantly available, with the numerous enhancements available with the click of a mouse. With today's advanced technology, and with images of clouds shown daily on television weather forecasts, it may be difficult to remember the days when there were no weather satellites, but prior to their existence, major storms such as hurricanes could strike without warning. On April 1, 2000, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) celebrated the 40th anniversary of the launch of the world's first weather satellite.

Today, the nation's environmental satellites are operated by NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) in Suitland, Maryland. NOAA's operational environmental satellite system is composed of two types of satellites: geostationary operational environmental satellites (GOES) for national, regional, short-range warning and "now-casting," and polar-orbiting environmental satellites (POES) for global, long-term forecasting and environmental monitoring. Both types of satellites are necessary for providing a complete global weather monitoring system. In addition, NOAA operates satellites in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), which are also polar-orbiting satellites. NESDIS also manages the processing and distribution of the millions of bits of data and images the satellites produce each day.


Below are 3 images with different applied enhancements of the remnants of Hurricane Frances as it moves into east Kentucky during the morning of September 7th, 2004. A clearly defined frontal boundary is seen to the west.


The world's first meteorological satellite, a polar-orbiting satellite, was launched from Cape Canaveral on April 1, 1960. Named TIROS for Television Infrared Observation Satellite, it demonstrated the advantage of mapping the earth's cloud cover from satellite altitudes. TIROS showed clouds banded and clustered in unexpected ways. Sightings from the surface had not prepared meteorologists for the interpretation of the cloud patterns that the view from an orbiting satellite would show. The availability of satellite data, even with the poor quality of today's standards, allowed for a leap in the science of meteorology.

The spacecraft was 42 inches in diameter, 19 inches high and weighed 270 pounds. The craft was made of aluminum alloy and stainless steel then covered by 9200 solar cells, which charged the nickel-cadmium (nicad) batteries. Three pairs of solid-propellant spin rockets were mounted on the base plate and two television cameras were housed in the craft, one low resolution and one high resolution. The craft was spin-stabilized and space oriented (not Earth-oriented). Therefore, the cameras were only operated while they were pointing at the Earth when that portion of the Earth was in sunlight. The video systems relayed thousands of pictures containing cloud-cover views of the Earth. Early photographs provided information concerning the structure of large-scale cloud regimes.

TIROS I was operational for only 78 days, but proved that satellites could be a useful tool for surveying global weather conditions from space.




From April 1, 1960 to July 2, 1965 ten TIROS satellites were launched. The satellites ensured continuity of data throughout the early years. The next series of satellites, named ESSA, for Environmental Science Services Administration, were launched from February 3, 1966 to February 26, 1969. Nine satellites in the ESSA series were launched during this time. These satellites were also polar-orbiting satellites.

On Jan. 23, 1970, the first of the improved satellites was launched. This satellite was named ITOS 1, for Improved TIROS Operational Satellite. Between December 11, 1970 and July 29, 1976. Five ITOS satellites designated NOAA-1 through 5 were launched. NOAA-1 was the first satellite to bear the NOAA name and the first to be launched after the establishment of NOAA in October 1970.

From October 13, 1978 to July 23, 1981, satellites in the TIROS-N series were launched. The N represented the next generation of operational satellites. NOAA-6 and NOAA-7 were launched during this time frame. Flight of the AVHRR (Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer) and TIROS Operational Vertical Sounder suite started on TIROS-N.

On March 28, 1983, the first of the Advanced TIROS-N (or ATN) satellites designated NOAA-8 was launched. These satellites are physically larger and have more power, than their predecessors, to accommodate more equipment. NOAA continues to operate the ATN series of satellites today with improved instruments. The current configuration is NOAA-14, launched Dec. 12, 1994, and NOAA-15, launched May 13, 1998. NOAA-15 is the first in a series of five satellites with improved imaging and sounding capabilities that will operate over the next decade.


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