10 October 2011

The Next Generation Weather/Earth Science Satellite Is Two Weeks From Launch

Posted by Dan Satterfield

It’s called NPP and it is part of NPOES but it’s definitely NOT GOES. It is however a big GO (once they fix some leaks on the Delta 2 Rocket), and it will head it into space from Vandenburg AFB in California late this month. Science loves its acronyms but here’s what it all means in plain language.

NPOES is the National Polar Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System and it is about to be upgraded with a new next generation satellite called NPP which stands for (get ready for it!) National Polar Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite Preparatory Project. Yes, I know there are eight words and only 3 letter is the abbreviation, but when you put NPOES and NPP together, it kinda, sorta, maybe makes sense! Acronyms aside, this is a badly needed satellite and it is expected to bring big returns to operational weather forecasters like me and NOAA and also to Earth scientists studying climate change and a host of other subjects related to the big blue marble we live on.

NASA has put together a fun but very informative video on NPP, and those of you in Washington DC may recognize the familiar face of one of my fellow meteorologists who works in TV there. Ball Aerospace, (NPP’s builder) has a video as well here.

Most people are familiar with GOES (the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites) because they see them on TV weathercasts each day. There are actually two of them, a GOES East and a GOES West, and if you saw a satellite image of a hurricane this past summer, it was likely from the GOES. If, however, you saw an incredible full color image of one, it was probably from the MODIS imager on NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites, which are in polar orbits like the NPP will be. It’s worth repeating that we only see a tiny part of the universe when looking at the visible light our eyes can detect. It’s truly amazing what can be measured when you look at light in many other wavelengths.

NASA has some neat posters available for download for my fellow science geeks. Teachers, these would be fabulous in a classroom. Click the image to see all of them.

NPP will have a device on it called a sounder which can measure temperature and moisture profiles in the atmosphere as it passes overhead (at about 824 km). This is done by looking at light in the microwave portion of the spectrum and it has revolutionized the collection of model data. This data is already fed into the NWP models that are used for weather and storm forecasts, and trust me they would be far less accurate without the data.

The fastest supercomputers in the world are of no use if we cannot give an NWP model a starting point of what the atmosphere is doing right now. Remember GIGO (garbage in=garbage out)? That phrase applies to numerical weather prediction more than perhaps anything else! NPP will replace the aging platforms and increase the  reliability of this data that is input into the models, and it’s probably more valuable than the pictures of clouds it will send back!

What about weather balloons you ask? They are very costly and are you going to be the one to pay and man a thousand ships in the Pacific Ocean so we can see the weather systems coming our way? When I say the satellites are a big bang for the buck, that’s what I’m talking about. Reliable five to seven-day weather forecasts would not be possible without them and that is just one small part of the data they send back.

One thing that is often overlooked is the amount of goodwill these satellites foster among other nations around the planet, and especially in our hemisphere. Life saving weather forecasts and emergency location technology in many countries are a reality thanks to the data sent back from the GOES and the POES. NPP will have the next generation of imagers  (microwave/IR radiometers) along with instruments designed specifically to measure the ozone hole over both poles.

Next week I’ll be attending the GOES users conference in Birmingham, and will be making a presentation to some of the TV meteorologists about the coming massive upgrade to the GOES satellites. The GOES-R series will launch in about 4 years, and the data from space will go from a trickle to a fire hose! Look for a post about that, with the slides included, around the middle of the month. TV (in general) has done a decent job in staying up to date on radar technology, but satellite presentations on air have changed little since the 1970’s, and this has to change if we are going to take on-air weather presentations into the next era of satellite meteorology.