Cloudsat, a Satellite Radar Developed in Part by Colorado State University, Launched into Space Early Today

CloudSat, the world’s most sensitive cloud-profiling radar developed by NASA in collaboration with Colorado State University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Canadian Space Agency and Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., today joined NASA’s array of earth science observation satellites 438 miles above Earth.

Now, Colorado State scientists are responsible for processing data from the $217 million satellite – data that should be available starting in late May.

CloudSat is the first radar to look vertically at the characteristics of clouds, particularly water and ice content that could someday help scientists better predict weather patterns and climate changes. Researchers around the world will benefit from the radar’s data about cloud processes. In addition to improving weather forecasting, the data will help understand how clouds determine Earth’s energy balance, increase the accuracy of severe storm warnings, improve water resource management and develop even more advanced radar technology.

"This has been a long but very rewarding partnership with JPL, Ball, the Canadian Space Agency and our other partners, including the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Department of Energy," said Graeme Stephens, a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State and CloudSat’s visionary and principal investigator. "The aim of this mission is to collect data about clouds for climate scientists all over the world who have struggled to understand the role of clouds in weather and climate changes. It was worth the wait."

Stephens and the CloudSat team have worked on the project since its selection in 1999, enduring launch delays for the past three years. The project totals $217 million including $185 million from NASA.

In this mission, Stephens provides the scientific guidance and is responsible for the mission success while a NASA center – in this case JPL – manages and implements the mission. CloudSat is one of only three principal investigator-led Earth science missions launched or about to be launched by NASA and is one of the very few Earth missions that has had such university leadership.

Other partners include Ball, which built the spacecraft for the CloudSat mission, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Air Force.

"This is a first-of-a-kind radar that has never been flown in space before," said Deborah Vane, deputy principal investigator with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "CloudSat is a prototype of what the future will be in terms of observation of the atmosphere."

"We are proud to be associated with this very important scientific endeavor with NASA," said Steven Rutledge, head of Colorado State’s Department of Atmospheric Science, a Program of Research and Scholarly Excellence at the university. "Colorado State continues to be at the forefront of atmospheric research."

CloudSat will weigh the amount of water and ice in clouds, which dictates how much precipitation clouds produce and how they reflect sunlight and absorb infrared radiation. The radar also will help capture the grand scale of weather systems that can sometimes cover areas as large as the United States.

Ultimately, the information could help scientists predict massive global climate changes and where droughts might occur. The radar should be able to detect more than 90 percent of all ice clouds and 80 percent of all water clouds.

"Humans pull more water out of the ground than actually goes back into it, so it’s kind of like planning for retirement," Stephens said. "We have a certain supply of fresh water that comes from clouds, yet we’re drawing more out than is coming back in. It’s very critical to understand the issues that control that supply, that influence the variability of that supply and determine how that supply is going to change in the face of environmental change.

"We’re stages back from trying to understand these processes. From that understanding will come improved predictions."

That work starts soon: The U.S. Air Force will receive raw data collected from the CloudSat spacecraft and will transmit the data to the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, or CIRA, based at Colorado State. There, atmospheric scientists will turn that data into usable information for researchers around the globe such as U.S. military research laboratories and major weather centers.

Data will be retrieved from the satellite roughly eight times a day.

"The center will ingest, process and disseminate all of the CloudSat science data products," said Don Reinke, manager of the CloudSat Data Processing Center, housed within CIRA.

During the expected 22-month duration of the mission, CIRA will process and store about 12 terabytes of data, Reinke said. A terabyte is one million megabytes – a megabyte is enough disk storage to hold about 20,000 average size e-mail messages.

The CloudSat spacecraft is flying in orbital formation as part of a constellation of satellites, including NASA’s Aqua and Aura satellites, the French Space Agency (CNES) PARASOL satellite and the NASA-CNES CALIPSO satellite. This is the first time that five research satellites will fly together in formation.

Ball built the spacecraft that was launched from Vandenberg at 4:02 a.m. MST on the same Delta rocket with the CALIPSO spacecraft.

CloudSat’s radar measurements will overlap those of the other satellites in the constellation. The precision of this overlap creates a unique multi-satellite observing system for studying the atmospheric processes essential to the Earth’s hydrological cycle and weather systems and will provide unsurpassed information about the role of clouds in weather and climate.

The collaborative mission draws on the expertise of industries, universities and laboratories in the United States, Canada, Japan and Europe. The CloudSat satellite uses the first-ever space-borne millimeter wavelength cloud profiling radar, developed for NASA by JPL in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency. This highly advanced radar has the ability to measure both the altitude and the physical properties of clouds. Existing space-based systems can observe only the uppermost layer of clouds and cannot reliably detect the presence of multiple cloud layers or determine the cloud water and ice content.

CloudSat is managed and implemented by JPL for NASA’s Earth Explorers Program Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The U.S. Department of Energy will provide independent verification of the radar performance through its Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program. Scientists from the United States, Germany, France, Canada and Japan are contributing their facilities and expertise to develop science data products, analyze data and complement the DOE on-orbit verification efforts.

The CloudSat mission is designed for a two-year lifetime to observe more than one seasonal cycle. However, there is no anticipated technical reason why the mission could not last longer, as the radar is expected to operate for a minimum of three years.