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How Satellites Track Storms From Space

Posted on Fri, September 14, 2018
  • by: Hillary Brady, Digital Experiences
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  • While commonplace today, satellite weather tracking was not possible before 1960.
  • The first images of weather from space were taken by the TIROS I satellite on April 1, 1960.
  • Today, different types of satellites, using a variety of tools, monitor and capture images of weather on Earth and in space.

If you turn on your television during a major weather event, almost every channel will feature something similar: anchors and meteorologists donning waterproof attire, explaining the path of the storm with the help of a complex, brightly colored, satellite map. We take it for granted now, but before 1960 this type of weather observation was not possible.

That all changed with the launch of the TIROS I on April 1, 1960. The satellite made it possible to observe Earth’s weather from outer space. Operating for three months, TIROS I transmitted thousands of images of cloud patterns and other phenomena to ground stations.

Image taken on April 1, 1960 by TIROS 1. This was the first television picture of Earth from space.

Image taken on April 1, 1960 by TIROS 1. This was the first television picture of Earth from space. Credit: NASA

“Before TIROS, we didn’t have that kind of warning,” said Priscilla Strain, program manager of the Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies and curator of our Looking at Earth gallery. Before satellites, the only hope of knowing about a hurricane before it hit land, for example, was if a ship at sea encountered it first and could report it. “But we don’t think of one of those big storms coming without warning anymore.”

Today, a variety of satellites provide weather data to scientists. In addition to satellites like TIROS, geostationary satellites provide comprehensive coverage; these satellites orbit at the same speed that the Earth rotates, so it is as if they are over one spot all the time, Strain said.

For example, the GOES geostationary satellite series looks at a whole hemisphere at one time. The latest satellites in the GOES series have a variety of tools to monitor and capture images of weather on Earth and in space. This includes the first instrument to measure lightning flown in geostationary orbit. (An increase in lightning is usually an indicator that a severe storm, like a hurricane, is developing.)

A variety of other NOAA and NASA satellites (and even the cameras aboard the International Space Station) capture and measure weather from space. Most recently, these instruments have been used to track Hurricane Florence as it approaches land.

Hurricane Florence as seen by NASA's AIRS Instrument on September 12, 2018.

Hurricane Florence as seen by NASA's AIRS Instrument on September 12, 2018. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory 

An image of Hurricane Florence taken from a GOES satellite on September 14, 2018.

An image of Hurricane Florence taken from a GOES satellite on September 14, 2018. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

You can learn more about aerial and space observation in our Looking at Earth exhibition at our Museum in Washington, DC.  

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