Next-generation $1.5 billion weather satellite launched

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 06:08 AM EDT, 10/28/11: $1.5 billion weather satellite launched
  • Updated at 6:55 AM ET, 10/28/11: Updating 8th graf with satellite separation
CBS News

A United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket blasted off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base early Friday, boosting a $1.5 billion weather satellite into orbit to improve both short-range forecasting and understanding of long-term climate change.

Equipped with five advanced instruments, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project, or NPP for short, is intended to serve as a bridge between previous government weather stations and the planned Joint Polar Satellite System, a $12 billion constellation of advanced military and civilian weather sentinels scheduled for launch starting in 2017.

A United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket carrying a next-generation $1.5 billion weather satellite blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Friday. (Credit: Ben Cooper/Spaceflight Now)
"Launch of the NPP is a big deal for America," said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Centers for Environmental Prediction. "The timing ... could hardly be more appropriate."

"2011 has been termed the year of the billion-dollar weather disasters," he said. "We've already had 10 separate weather events, each inflicting at least $1 billion in damages, including tornado outbreaks, fires, we've had hurricanes that have affected the East Coast of the United States and we've had floods that have affected a large portion of the north central and central part of the united States."

With NPP's sophisticated sensors feeding data into NOAA's weather prediction models, "we expect to improve our forecast skills and extend those forecast skills out to five to seven days in advance for hurricanes, severe weather outbreaks and other extreme weather events," Uccellini said.

In addition to improved forecasting, he added, NOAA will use NPP data "to track ash plumes from volcanic eruptions to enhance aviation safety, monitor crops, vegetation, potential for drought and fires, measure variation in the arctic sea ice and detect harmful algal blooms and other hazards that might endanger fisheries and fragile ocean ecosystems."

Equipped with nine strap-on solid-fuel boosters for extra power, the United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket roared to life at 5:48 a.m. EDT (GMT-4) and quickly vaulted skyward from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, climbing away to the south through a cloudless sky.

Fifty-nine minutes later, the 4,700-pound NPP satellite was released into a 510-mile-high polar orbit and five minutes after that, the spacecraft's single solar panel unfolded. Six small "cubesats," built by university students to study a variety of phenomena, were to be released from the Delta 2 second stage about 40 minutes later.

"NPP is important because it makes observations, and observations help us make better models, which then help us make better predictions of what's going to happen," said Project Scientist Jim Gleason at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "If we have a better prediction, we can make a better decision and these decisions can be as simple as 'do I bring an umbrella?' Or as complex as how to adapt to a changing climate."

The NPP weather satellite features a suite of advanced instruments to improve forecasting and long-term climate studies. (Credit: NASA)
Built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., NPP is equipped with a suite of next-generation instruments:

--The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) to characterize fires, vegetation, ocean temperature and color, cloud cover and suspended particles called aerosols.

--The Clouds and Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) to measure solar energy reflected from the Earth's surface as well as the heat emitted by the planet to precisely measure Earth's radiation budget, a key factor in climate change.

--The Cross-Track Infrared Sounder (CrIS) and the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) a pair of instrument to measure atmospheric temperature and moisture around the world to to help researchers understand storms and other weather phenomena.

--The Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS) to measure the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere and the "ozone hole" that forms over the South Pole.

Engineers will spend a year and a half testing and calibrating the instruments before the satellite enters operational service.

NPP represents "the first mission that's designed to provide observations for both weather forecasters and climate researchers," said Gleason. "It's incredibly valuable to try to understand what the future environment may be. And the future environment is as much tomorrow's weather as it is long-term climate.

Lest anyone confuse "weather" and "climate," "weather is what's going to happen tomorrow or this upcoming weekend," he said. "Climate is what happens over years and decades. So climate is long-term behavior, weather patterns over time. These are the patterns that make it easier to grow corn in Iowa than in Arizona. Simply put, climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.

"NPP's observations will help scientists better predict the future environment. And these predictions are incredibly valuable for economic security and humanitarian reasons. NPP's observations will produce at least 30 data sets that will contribute to our understanding of all parts of the Earth system."

NPP originally was intended to serve as a testbed for the advanced sensors and ground systems envisioned for what evolved into the JPSS program. But budget-crunching delays to resolve vexing technical issues left the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with an aging fleet of operational polar weather satellites that is not expected to last until the new program debuts.

As a result, the NPP satellite launched Friday is now considered an operational stopgap of sorts, putting the new sensors to the test while collecting global weather data for forecasting and climate analysis.

"NPP represents a bridge from current NOAA operational and NASA research satellites to the future operation of platforms known as the Joint Polar Satellite System," said Mitch Goldberg, NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System program scientist. "NPP is particularly very important for weather forecasting."

"The accuracy of weather forecasts are based on advanced numerical weather prediction models running on the world's fastest computers, which are fed billions of observations per day covering the entire globe. The backbone for those global observations is the polar satellite data that both NASA and NOAA have worked for decades to improve. ... NPP will ensure that these improvements will continue and that there will be no degradation of forecast skill."