Satellite launches new climate science era

Monday 31st Oct 2011 by theWeather Club

A new and exciting era in climate science began as the NPP climate and weather satellite blasted into orbit on a bright Californian morning on the 28th October. The new satellite costing just shy of one billion pounds is seen as the first of a new generation of highly sophisticated satellites tasked with gathering the data needed to answer the increasingly complex questions being asked by climatologists around the world. Orbiting at an altitude of 824km, the satellite will become a key instrument for watching over a changing Earth. NPP stands for the tongue twisting title National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project.

The satellite is a joint effort between US space agency Nasa and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with input from the US Department of Defence. It has five instruments on board that will monitor a wide range of land, ocean, and atmospheric phenomena - from the temperature and humidity of the air, to the spread of algal blooms in the ocean; and from the amount of sunlight bouncing off clouds to the extent of Arctic ice. Dr Jim Gleason, the NPP project scientist at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre, commented: "NPP's observations will produce long-term datasets which will help scientists make better models, which then lead to better predictions, which hopefully can be used to make better decisions... These decisions can be as simple as 'do I need to bring an umbrella?', or as complex as 'how do we respond to a changing climate?'."

There is a concern, however, that NPP is being asked to do too much. Not only is it testing new Earth observing instruments while providing operational data to meteorologists for general forecasting, but in its climate role it will continue collecting the datasets acquired over the past 10 years by Nasa's highly successful Earth Observing System satellites. As well as all this the NPP has to perform flawlessly for five years at the very least as it is also act as a bridging system between NOAA's's existing system of polar-orbiting weather satellites and the agency's future fleet, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)."The NPP mission design life is five years; it has propellant in its propulsion system for seven years," explained Scott Asbury from Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation, which built NPP. "Nasa is concerned about the longevity of the instruments on board. They were built to prove the instruments in the future operational system, and there were some anomalies in the development of the instruments that had to be overcome," he told reporters. "NOAA's target date for launching JPSS-1 is the first quarter of 2017. So they're worried NPP won't last long enough to get JPSS-1 up on orbit and fully commissioned."

Despite the concerns the launch is an occasion for optimism and excitement as it holds out the promise of a step change in our understanding of the climate and our ability to prepare for extreme weather events. Dr Louis Uccellini, who directs NOAA's National Centres for Environmental Prediction, said NPP's importance was emphasised by events in 2011 in America, which he described as the year of the billion-dollar weather disasters saying; "We've already had 10 separate weather events, each inflicting at least one billion dollars in damages, including the tornado outbreaks, fires and hurricanes.” He continued, "with NPP's advanced microwave, infrared and visible data feeding NOAA's operational weather prediction models, we expect to improve forecasting skills and extend those skills out to five to seven days in advance, for hurricanes and other extreme weather events."