EEOS Professor Contributes to NASA Weather Satellite Launch with Earth Observing Instrument Aboard
November 28, 2011
Professor of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences Crystal Schaaf stood with the large crowd of team members and their families at Santa Barbara's Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 28, counting down the NASA launch of its next-generation NPP weather satellite.
It was 2:45 a.m. in the morning, West Coast time.
“You see this huge blast of light and then, seconds later, the sound of the boom,” Schaaf said. “Then it starts rising up, quite slowly, into the air and heading out away from us.”
As the satellite was heading out to space, Schaaf said she saw the smaller rockets that were giving it extra propulsion burn off, “almost like a little sparkle of light leaving the burning trail behind it.” Because it was a clear night, Schaaf said she could continue to watch the satellite rise for almost 10 minutes.
The (National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project) NPP satellite is carrying Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), the Earth observing instrument that will collect data on both long-term climate change and short-term weather conditions. Schaaf, funded by grants from NOAA and NASA, is a member of the scientific team evaluating the imagery products for quality.
The NPP craft will build on more than four decades of Earth observation to help better understand our climate.
“It’s not the one you see on the Weather Channel,” Schaaf said of the satellite. “This is some really impressive stuff. The satellite accumulates pictures similar to a standard weather satellite, showing land and ocean surfaces, cloud cover and temperatures, but with a large number of spectral bands at much higher resolution."
The first VIIRS image was released on November 21. Click here to see the image.
“You can see the fall colors from space,” Schaaf said. “We can get coarser resolution weather data more frequently, but this is really high resolution spectral information that we get daily and can use to monitor the Earth.”
Schaaf said that the satellite builds on the success of the decade-old MODIS program, for which she was also a part of the science team. Originally a research satellite, MODIS has evolved into more. “It’s not just a research thing,” she said. “They’ve become pretty key to real-time applications.”
It was a whirlwind trip for Schaaf, who flew out to California the day before the launch, stayed up all night to watch it, and flew back that same day.
She teaches an Introduction to Remote Sensing class at UMass Boston. Her students, after learning about satellite imagery, VIIRS, and MODIS, were able to vicariously experience the NPP satellite launch by hearing about the updates, delays, and information leading up to launch. They followed the launch via the NASA website while Schaaf was in California and then heard all about it when she came back. She also brought back NASA souvenirs like pencils and bookmarks.
Schaaf described the satellite’s path as similar to that of a ball of twine- moving over the Earth’s poles and around the earth, crossing the equator at each time at around 1:30 p.m. “It gets a glimpse of everywhere on Earth once during the day in the light and once in the dark.”
In addition to using the data for short-term weather forecasting and longer-term climate models, scientists are also able to monitor wildfires, view storm damage, assess snowpack for water and irrigation, track deforestation, evaluate agriculture for crop yields and famine relief, observe the health of rangelands, establish ocean productivity and even monitor the impact of silt, nutrients, and pollutants along the coasts and at the mouths of rivers such as the Mississippi.
With current satellites aging quickly, and the next satellite not slated to go up for another four or five years, Schaaf was grateful to see this one launched. “We’re very relieved that it made it into orbit.”
Satellites like MODIS and NPP are usually expected to stay in orbit for five years, Schaaf said, but if nothing goes wrong they have enough fuel to stay up for 15 to 20 years. The MODIS satellite that went up in 1999, for example, will run out of fuel in 2017. “You pray and hope for six years, and if you get past that you’re pathetically grateful,” she said.
More information on the satellite is available at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NPP/main/index.html.