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NASA's Current Earth-Observing Satellite Fleet
OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space And The Stuff In Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

Watch a space fleet track Earth's weather and environment


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, October 5, 2015, 10:42 AM - To kick off World Space Week 2015, check out the two dozen satellites that monitor our planet's changing weather and environment from near-Earth orbit and beyond.

Monitoring Earth's weather and environment from space is vital for forecasting, conservation and even emergency response, as it offers us a viewpoint on events and issues that we would never have otherwise.

Above, NASA plots the orbits of 19 members of its fleet of satellites, which circle around the planet in near-Earth orbit, each member making several passes around Earth each day.

The Aqua and Terra satellites provide daily tracking of Earth's oceans and land features, giving scans in multiple wavelengths for scientists to study. Aquarius once monitored global sea surface salinity, however this satellite became non-operational in June 2015, after orbiting for nearly 4 years. The Aura satellite gathers data on the chemistry of Earth's atmosphere, specifically about the common pollutants that are of concern for air quality - ozone, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. CALIPSO and CloudSat fly in formation with each other to study the effects of clouds on Earth's climate system. EO-1, or Earth Observing-1, began as a test platform for the Landsat missions that followed it, also provides multspectrum land data for the US Geological Survey. The GPM (Global Precipitation Measurement) satellite monitors rainfall worldwide, and has most recently observed Hurricane Joaquin as it tracks up the North American east coast. The GRACE mission is actually two satellites working in tandem, monitoring Earth's gravity fields, which allows scientists to track changes in ocean currents, losses and gains in glaciers and sea ice, and changes in the planet's interior. Jason-2 tracks changes in the heights of Earth's oceans.

The International Space Station, which primarily acts as a space-based science laboratory, also uses several instruments to monitor Earth's surface and atmosphere.

Landsat-7 and Landsat-8 are the latest two in this series of satellites, which monitor Earth's continents and coastal regions. According to NASA: "Landsat data are critically important for understanding and managing forests, farms, changes in urban landscapes, responding to wild fires, measuring the extent of flood and storm damage, examining wildlife habitat, measuring glacial retreat, mapping the extent of the Antarctic ice sheet, and much more."

OCO-2, aka the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, replaced OCO-1 when it was lost upon launch. Its sole purpose in orbit is to monitor global atmospheric carbon dioxide. QuikSCAT has been operating since 1999, to monitor wind speeds and directions over Earth's oceans, for climate studies, storm tracking and weather forecasting. SMAP, is the newest member of the fleet, monitoring soil moisture for use in tracking water cycles and ecosystems, and could providing warnings of potential flooding or drought. SORCE, or Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment, is aptly named as it keeps track of incoming radiation from the Sun - the ultimate source of energy for Earth's climate - at various wavelengths. Suomi NPP is a polar-orbiting satellite that provides quick update weather data in concert with the Aqua and Terra missions.

Near-Earth orbit satellites aren't the only ones monitoring conditions down here, near the surface. There are also satellites far out, roughly 36,000 kms above the surface, tracking things from geosynchronous orbit.

Shown in the video above are NASA and NOAA's GOES-13 (GOES-East) and GOES-15 (GOES-West) satellites, European Meteosat-7 and Meteosat-9 satellites and the Japanese MTSAT-2 satellite. Each of these orbits far enough out that it remains in fixed position relative to Earth's surface, offering an unchanging view of the planet to better track weather systems as they develop and progress through the atmosphere.

Want to see what they see?

The data from these satellites can be viewed at various sites on the web.

GOES weather satellite views are available via the NOAA website. Terra and Aqua data can be seen at the NASA WorldView site. Landsat imagery is available to the public from NASA's website, and the NASA Earth Observatory acts as a hub for much of the fleet's data, and is packed with incredible imagery of our planet.

Sources: NASA | NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

WATCH BELOW: Stunning high-definition views of our planet are presented by cameras on the International Space Station.

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