Looking at Earth

A Satellite for all Seasons

Meteorological satellites look at Earth to study the weather and atmosphere. Satellite weather images provide a wealth of information quickly and continuously. This information, especially as it is used in storm predictions, has often proved vital to the preservation of lives and property.


Clouds are the most obvious features appearing on satellite weather imagery. Close-up views reveal complex and delicate patterns, from crisscrossing streaks and oceanlike waves, to massive storm systems and eddies in the wakes of islands. To many, such as geologists, farmers, and fisherman, the clouds cover up the important information, but to meteorologists these cloud images supply useful and interesting data.

  • These unusual cloud streaks called shiptracks are believed to be caused by aerosols and other particles given off by the smoke stacks of large ships.
    NOAA Satellite Image

  • Cloud eddy off the coast of Morocco. This intriguing feature may be caused by the air flow around the coastline and nearby Atlas Mountains.
    NASA Photograph

  • Cloud patterns indicate vortices off Guadalupe Island west of Baja, California. Formation of such swirls is related to wind speed and differences in air temperature.
    NASA Photograph

  • The snow covered Andes Mountains of Chile poke through a solid cloud deck.
    NASA Photograph

  • Clouds completely obscure the view of the Earth in this scene taken by a camera mounted on the Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS), a European Space Agency payload carried into orbit by the space shuttle.
    NASA Photograph

  • The sun highlights thick clouds in this Apollo view.
    NASA Photograph


  • View of a thunderstorm over the Soviet Union photographed by U.S. astronauts on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. The Soviet Soyuz spacecraft is in the upper left.
    NASA Photograph

  • GOES satellite view of Hurricane Allen in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 1980.
    Courtesy of National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, NOAA

  • Perspective view of Hurricane Mitch on October 26, 1998.
    Courtesy of Laboratory of Atmospheres, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

  • Two Pacific storms are visible on a GOES satellite image from July 1978.
    Courtesy of National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, NOAA

  • GOES-8 infrared image of Hurricanes Georges, Karl, Ivan, and Jeanne on September 26, 1998.
    Courtesy of National Climatic Data Center, NOAA

  • Skylab view of tropical storm Ellen from September 1973.
    NASA Photograph

  • Storm viewed by Apollo 9 crew.
    NASA Photograph

  • Apollo 9 view of the 1968 hurricane, Gladys, over Florida.
    NASA Photograph

TIROS (Television and Infrared Observation Satellite)

The world's first weather satellite, TIROS-1, was launched on April 1, 1960. It provided more than 22,000 pictures of the Earth from orbit. This new way to look at Earth's weather revolutionized the science of storm prediction. Now even the most remote places on Earth could be monitored regularly.

Between 1960 and 1965, nine more satellites were launched in the TIROS program. TIROS instruments included wide- and narrow-angle television cameras.

The Air and Space Museum's satellite is a TIROS-II prototype designed for ground testing.
Courtesy of NASA

Views of Earth's weather patterns from TIROS IX

NASA Imagery

TIROS Mosaic

In 1965, 450 TIROS images were put together to produce the first complete global view of the Earth's weather patterns.

ITOS (Improved TIROS Operational System)

ITOS (Improved TIROS Operational System) satellites were the second series of TIROS operational satellites. Their predecessors, the TOS (TIROS Operational System) satellites represented a step up from a research and development phase into a fully operational program. ITOS-1, launched in January 1970, greatly surpassed the performance of the earlier satellites by providing both direct transmission and storage of television and infrared imagery. Later ITOS spacecraft also supplied vertical profiles of atmospheric temperature. ITOS satellites remained in service through 1979.

The Air and Space Museum's ITOS satellite was designed for ground engineering tests.
Courtesy of RCA Astro Electronics

The seventh ITOS being readied for launch.
NASA Photograph

ITOS launch on a Delta rocket.
NASA Photograph

Scene of Canada and the Great Lakes from the first ITOS satellite.
NASA Photograph


Launched in 1978, TIROS-N was the first in the series of the third generation polar orbiting operational satellites. TIROS-N was equipped with instruments for visible and infrared imaging, ocean temperature readings, and atmospheric studies. Later satellites in the series were designated NOAA.
The Museum's 1/10 Scale model is courtesy of RCA Astro Electronics


Launched in June 2002, NOAA 17 is the latest in the advanced TIROS-N (ATN) series of satellites. Like its predessors, this polar-orbiting spacecraft supports environmental monitoring instruments for the imaging and measurement of the Earth's atmosphere, surface, and cloud cover. The main instrument of the NOAA satellites, the AVHRR (Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer) collects a variety of data, including the properties of vegetation, cloud cover, snow, and ice cover, and land and sea surface. NOAA 17 is also the third spacecraft in the series to carry microwave instruments for the collection of temperature, moisture, surface, and hydrological data in cloudy regions where visible and infrared instruments are not as effective.
NOAA drawing

GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite)

GOES satellites are designed to constantly monitor the same region of the Earth. They are placed in a geostationary orbit 35,800 kilometers (about 22,200 miles) above the equator. At this altitude, a satellite orbits at the same speed as the Earth rotates, so it remains fixed over one spot on the ground. From this vantage point, GOES can provide intensive coverage of a region's daily weather developments as well as warnings of severe storms to come.

Since the first launch in 1975, GOES spacecraft have gone through several generations of technical development. Unlike previous spin-stabilized satellites, the current GOES series has a three-axis body-stabilized design that allows its sensors to continuously point towards the Earth. A rotating solar array supplies power, and a long solar sail boom balances the craft.
The National Air and Space Museum gratefully acknowledges the generous donation of the GOES 1/2 scale model by Space Systems/LORAL, Palo Alto, California

Technicians ready the GOES-K for launch. After it became operational, the satellite was called GOES-10.
Courtesy of Space Systems/LORAL

This diagram shows the actual dimensions of GOES I-M series spacecraft. The solar sail boom on the Museum's model is not to scale, due to its great length. At the model's scale, the boom would be 3.7 meters (12 feet) longer than the one displayed in the gallery.
Courtesy of Space Systems/LORAL

The Launch of the GOES-K satellite aboard an Atlas 1 rocket on April 25, 1997.
CNASA Photograph

An image of the Earth from the GOES-8 satellite. The GOES imaging sensor records data in five different wavelength bands (both visible and infrared) and can monitor cloud cover, atmospheric, water, and sea surface temperature.
Courtesy of Space Systems/LORAL and NOAA

Hurricane Fran threatens the Florida coast in this GOES-8 image from September 1996.
Courtesy of Space Systems/LORAL and Fritz Hasler/NASA Goddard Laboratory for Atmospheres

Weather or Not: Images From Weather Satellites Provide More Than Just A Forecast

El Chichon Volcano

Sensors on the NOAA-6 meteorological satellite gathered data to produce images of the ash plume from the 1983 eruption of the Mexican volcano El Chichon. On the left is a scene in visible light. The view on the right is thermal infrared. Red represents cooler temperatures and blue indicates warmer areas. The main section of the ash plume is relatively cool because it has been ejected high into the atmosphere where temperatures are very cold. This plume reached heights in excess of 17 kilometers (about 11 miles).

Beyond its geological and meteorological applications, imagery such as this also helps aircraft avoid dangerous concentrations of ash.
Courtesy of National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, NOAA


NOAA-15 images of the ash cloud from the Soufriere Hills volcano on the Island of Montserrat, October 26, 1999. The image to the left is in visible light. The image to the right has had water vapor data removed to highlight the ash plume.
Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Air pollution, haze, and dust can be detected on weather satellite imagery. These NOAA-15 images reveal the presence of a dust cloud over western China on April 29, 1999. The image on the left depicts the dust as an area of light brown haze. The image on the right has had water vapor data removed making the dust cloud appear white.
Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Imagery courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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