We take it for granted that at this very moment, over 1,100 operational satellites are racing above our heads in orbit around the Earth. They power our modern world, providing communications, defense, and research on a global scale. But there is one particular application of satellite technology that I want to focus on: weather satellites.
The story of how the Space Race revolutionized weather forecasting begins in October of 1957. The Soviet Union has just launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into an elliptical low-Earth orbit, sparking the Space Race between the Soviets and the world’s other superpower, the United States of America. The years that followed were marked by perhaps the most rapid innovation of the 20th century, with increasingly complex satellites being launched into orbit with increasing regularity.
Back on the ground, computers were being used for the first time to forecast the weather. Code was written that took the initial conditions of the atmosphere and then computed what would happen over time based on the “rules” of meteorology and other Earth sciences. It seemed as though the field of weather forecasting was about to explode, but there was a problem. A computer’s predictions of the weather are only as good as the data that is initially given to it. When these codes were being tested in the mid to late 1950’s, real-time weather data could only be collected on land through a system of weather stations and radar whose coverage was spotty at best, along with weather balloons. There was just no good way to gather empirical data over the oceans, a driving force behind weather all around the globe.
The solution to the problem of gathering accurate weather data over the oceans came in the form of satellites. Meteorologists realized that satellites in orbit could be used to monitor temperature, clouds, and water vapor content over every corner of the planet, no matter how remote. Full advantage was taken of NASA’s ever-advancing satellite launch technology, and on April 1st, 1960, the first successful mission, TIROS 1 (Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite) was thrusted into low-Earth orbit. It carried with it visible light and infrared cameras that were used to image clouds.
Flash forward to today, and weather satellites are an integral part of weather observation and data collection, allowing increasingly advanced weather models to output the most accurate solutions possible, keeping all of us a little more safe.
Footnote: This November 19 will be the one-year anniversary of the launch of GOES 16 (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite). GOES 16 is the most advanced weather observation system in orbit to date, with a fourfold increase in resolution from its predecessor. It has been crucial this past summer in tracking dangerous storms like Harvey, Maria, Jose, and Irma in real-time, as well as providing crucial high resolution data for forecasters to work with.
(Bold words indicate words or phrases that curious readers may want to research further on their own)