Satellite Images from Space Still Improving After 50 Years, According to Science Article Published Today

Fifty years ago, scientists studying climate and weather were lucky to capture cloud cover from the first satellite – a revolutionary, infrared observation satellite launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in April 1960.

Today, satellites capture precipitation, cloud and snow cover, soil moisture, smoke, dust, volcanic ash and gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone.

In the next phase, these qualities will become part of improved computer forecasts that tell scientists even more about the weather and climate – and more importantly, how the pieces interact, according to a new article by internationally recognized Colorado State University atmospheric scientists in the Feb. 26 issue of Science magazine.

Authors are Stanley Kidder, a senior research scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (CIRA) at Colorado State, and Thomas Vonder Haar, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science in CSU’s College of Engineering.

“We’ve finished the first 50 years of observing Earth and now we’re ready for the second Mission to Planet Earth – the next 50 years,” said Vonder Haar, who helped design the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite that NASA sent into space aboard the Challenger shuttle in October 1984.

Graeme Stephens, current director of CIRA at CSU, was the principal investigator on CloudSat, an Earth observation satellite that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched into space in April 2006. Scientists at CSU continue to lead aspects of other NASA projects that include measuring greenhouse gas emissions and precipitation around the globe.

At CIRA, researchers collect data from satellites and repackage the information for scientists around the world.

“Precipitation has been the ‘build a better mousetrap’ problem,” Vonder Haar said. “You serve so many needs, not just weather forecasters but hydrologists and water researchers.”

Added Kidder, “We’ve just begun, the future really is very bright and we still have just started these observations from space.”

During the first 50 years, meteorologists learned to identify meteorological systems such as low-and high-pressure systems, fronts, jet streams and severe thunderstorms.

Next up is fine-tuning the use of even greater detail – things like cloud cover and carbon dioxide – for forecasting weather and climate and figuring out how they affect different fields. For example, when a volcano erupts, the dust not only affects health and weather, but becomes a threat to aviation. Or when there are changes in atmospheric composition – how does that affect both climate and air quality?

In their article, Kidder and Vonder Haar wrote, “The first 50 years of space-based Earth observation progressed from crude observation to scientific understanding to stewardship of the atmosphere and of Earth. The new observations will result in many scientific insights and should help humanity to weather what could be the worst of global warming and other environmental problems.”

Kidder was one of only a dozen scientists who conducted a National Research Council study, "Earth Observations from Space: The First 50 Years of Scientific Achievements," published in 2008. The study was commissioned by NASA on the occasion of NASA’s 50-year anniversary. Vonder Haar, former director of CIRA, contributed to the study as a member of the NRC’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate.

Vonder Haar also recently served as the chairman of the interdisciplinary section of the National Academy of Engineering. He is one of only four active Colorado State scientists in the National Academies.