This summer has seen a violent outbreak of forest fires across Canada and North America. According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center (CIFFC), there were 911 active fires across the country on July 13th, nearly 600 of which were characterized as “out-of-control.” More than half of these active fires are taking place in the provinces of British Columbia, driven by a combination of unusual heat, dry lightning, and drought. The situation is becoming increasingly common thanks to rising global temperatures, diminished rainfall, changing weather patterns, and other related effects of Climate Change.
Monitoring forest fires and other meteorological phenomena is an important task for which Earth Observation missions like NASA’s Aqua satellite were created. On July 12th, with six weeks left in the Canadian fire season, Aqua captured images of some of the largest fires over British Columbia using its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument. The image above shows some of the biggest “hot spots” in the province, which produced dense plumes of smoke blowing eastward through the Rocky Mountains and into Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
Every day, there are more indications that show how anthropogenic factors are causing uncomfortable changes in our climate. Here in beautiful British Columbia, this means that wildfires are once again threatening countless acres of forests, communities, and wildlife. By the end of June 2021, more than 40 wildfires were raging across the province, including a rather substantial cluster around the town of Lytton.
Located just 150 km (about 93 mi) northeast of the city of Vancouver, Lytton, had to be evacuated on June 30th after an extreme heatwave led to wildfire sweeping through the area. These wildfires and the impact they were having at the time was being monitored by some of NASA’s Earth Observatory satellites. In a series of images recently shared on their website, they show the fires that were raging near Lytton just hours before the evacuation.
The Galápagos Islands hold an honored place in science history. I often wonder, if Charles Darwin could have seen this volcanic archipelago from this vantage point – a satellite view – how might have that aided or changed his research on evolution?
Satellite engineers know what every photographer knows: get close to your subject to get better pictures. Not just visible light pictures, but all across the spectrum. The lower altitude also improves things like radar, lidar, communications, and gps.
But when your subject is Earth, and Earth is surrounded by an atmosphere, getting closer is a delicate dance with physics. The closer a satellite gets to Earth, the more atmospheric drag it encounters. And that can mean an unscheduled plummet to destruction for Earth-Observing (EO) satellites.
One of the clearest signs of global warming, unless you live next to a glacier, are rising oceans. Now a joint mission involving the US and European countries is launching a pair of satellites to monitor the rising sea levels. The two satellites will monitor the oceans until 2030.
In 2014, British entrepreneur Charles Black founded the company Sen (an acronym for Space Exploration Network) with the vision of “democratizing space”. Behind this vision was Black’s desire to create the world’s first 4K video streaming platform that could send video from space to billions of people worldwide. The purpose of this is to educate the public on our ever-changing world and our growing presence in space.
The key to this ambitious goal is the creation of a constellation of small satellites that will provide real-time video from Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The company recently took a major step towards making that happen by using their recently-deployed satellite to gather footage of Earth and space from orbit. This effectively demonstrated the capabilities of their platform and may represent a new step in NewSpace.
The purpose of this new generation of satellites is to improve the forecasts of weather, oceans, the environment and space weather by providing faster and more detailed data, real-time images, and advanced monitoring. Recently, the satellite’s Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) made its debut by releasing its “first light“, which just happened to be some beautiful and breathtaking images of Earth from space.
The image featured above was taken on May 20th, 2018, where GOES-17 captured the sunset over Earth’s Western Hemisphere. This image was taken when the satellite was at a distance of 35,405 km (22,000 miles) from Earth and was presented in “GeoColor”, which captures features of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere in vivid detail and colors that are familiar to the human eye.
Compared to previous GOES satellites, GOES-17 can collect three times more data at four times the image resolution, and scan the planet five times faster than previous probes. These abilities were put to the test as the ABI created its beautiful images of Earth using two visible bands (blue and red) and one near-infrared “vegetation” band, and one of the ABI’s “longwave” infrared bands.
When combined as a “GeoColor” image, these bands provide valuable information for monitoring dust, haze, smoke, fog, clouds and winds in the atmosphere – which allows meteorologists to monitor and forecast where severe weather events will take place. It also allows scientists to monitor vegetation patterns to see how weather conditions can lead to increased drought or the expansions of greenery.
It also results in pictures depicting Earth in vivid and colorful detail, as you can plainly see! The satellite is currently in its post-launch checkout testing phase, where controllers on Earth are busy calibrating its instruments and systems and validating them for use. The imagery acquired by the ABI is one such example, which served as a preliminary check to ensure that the imaging instrument will function properly.
Other images included the picture of a series of dynamic marine stratocumulus clouds (shown above), which was captured by the satellite’s ABI off the western coast of Chile in the the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Once again, the improved resolution and sensitivity of the GOES-17 allows it to monitor clouds in our atmosphere with amazing detail and clarity.
GOES-17 also captured a deck of low level stratus clouds covering the southern California coast (above) and smoke plumes created by wildfires in central and northern Saskatchewan, Canada (below). These two images were also acquired by the ABI on May 20th, 2018, and demonstrate how effective GOES-17 will be when it comes to monitoring weather patterns, events that can trigger fires (i.e. lighting), and the resulting fires themselves.
Alongside GOES-17, NOAA’s operational geostationary constellation also consists of GOES-16 (operating as GOES-East), GOES-15 (operating as GOES-West), and GOES-14 – operating as the on-orbit spare. This satellite constellation is currently in good working order and is monitoring weather across the US and the planet each day.
While this data is still preliminary and non-operational, it does provide a good preview of what the GOES-17 can do. In the coming years, it and its third and fourth-generation cousins – GOES-T and GOES-U – will allow Earth observers to monitor weather, climate change and natural disasters with far greater detail, allowing for better early warning and response efforts.
To see more full-resolution images from the GOES-17 ABI, go to the NOAA page.
Record-setting Hurricane Irma barreled over the Caribbean islands of St. Martin, St. Barthelemy and Anguilla early Wednesday, destroying buildings with its sustained winds of 185 mph (297 kph), with rains and storm surges causing major flooding. The US National Hurricane Center listed the Category 5 Irma as the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded north of the Caribbean and east of the Gulf of Mexico. The storm continues to roar on a path toward the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and possibly Florida, or along the southeast coast of the US.
This animation of NOAA’s GOES East satellite imagery from Sept. 3 at 8:15 a.m. EDT (1215 UTC) to Sept. 6 ending at 8:15 a.m. EDT (1215 UTC) shows Category 5 Hurricane Irma as it moved west and track over St. Martin by 8 a.m. EDT on Sept. 6:
Different models have Irma traveling on slightly different paths and officials from all the areas that might possibly be hit are telling people to prepare and follow evacuation orders. National Hurricane Center scientist Eric Blake said via twitter that some models had the storm going one way, and some another. But he cautioned everyone in a potential path should take precautions. “Model trends can be quite misleading- could just change right back. It is all probabilistic at this point. It could still miss [one particular area]. But chances of an extreme event is rising.”
While satellite views provide the most comprehensive view of Irma’s potential track, there’s also a more ‘hands-on’ approach to getting data on hurricanes. NOAA hurricane hunter Nick Underwood posted this video while his plane flew into Hurricane Irma yesterday. The plane’s specialized instruments can take readings on the storm that forecasters can’t get anywhere else:
In the meantime, a launch is scheduled from Cape Canaveral on Thursday, September 7. SpaceX is hoping to launch the US Air Force’s X-37B reusable spaceplane, but current forecasts put only a 50% chance of weather suitable enough on Thursday, and only 40% on Friday. We’ll keep you posted.
For the latest satellite views, the Twitter accounts above are posting regular updates.
NASA’s first spacecraft dedicated to studying Earth’s atmospheric climate changing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and its carbon cycle has reached its final observing orbit and taken its first science measurements as the leader of the world’s first constellation of Earth science satellites known as the International “A-Train.”
The ‘first light’ measurements were conducted on Aug. 6 as the observatory flew over central Papua New Guinea and confirmed the health of the science instrument. See graphic below.
Before the measurements could begin, mission controllers had to cool the observatory’s three-spectrometer instrument to its operating temperatures.
“The spectrometer’s optical components must be cooled to near 21 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 6 degrees Celsius) to bring them into focus and limit the amount of heat they radiate. The instrument’s detectors must be even cooler, near minus 243 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 153 degrees Celsius), to maximize their sensitivity,” according to a NASA statement.
The team still has to complete a significant amount of calibration work before the observatory is declared fully operational.
OCO-2 was launched just over a month ago during a spectacular nighttime blastoff on July 2, 2014, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, atop a the venerable United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.
OCO-2 arrived at its final 438-mile (705-kilometer) altitude, near-polar orbit on Aug. 3 at the head of the international A-Train following a series of propulsive burns during July. Engineers also performed a thorough checkout of all of OCO-2’s systems to ensure they were functioning properly.
“The initial data from OCO-2 appear exactly as expected — the spectral lines are well resolved, sharp and deep,” said OCO-2 chief architect and calibration lead Randy Pollock of JPL, in a statement.
“We still have a lot of work to do to go from having a working instrument to having a well-calibrated and scientifically useful instrument, but this was an important milestone on this journey.”
OCO-2 now leads the A-Train constellation, comprising five other international Earth orbiting monitoring satellites that constitute the world’s first formation-flying “super observatory” that collects an unprecedented quantity of nearly simultaneous climate and weather measurements.
Scientists will use the huge quantities of data to record the health of Earth’s atmosphere and surface environment as never before possible.
OCO-2 is followed in orbit by the Japanese GCOM-W1 satellite, and then by NASA’s Aqua, CALIPSO, CloudSat and Aura spacecraft, respectively. All six satellites fly over the same point on Earth within 16 minutes of each other. OCO-2 currently crosses the equator at 1:36 p.m. local time.
The 999 pound (454 kilogram) observatory is the size of a phone booth.
OCO-2 is equipped with a single science instrument consisting of three high-resolution, near-infrared spectrometers fed by a common telescope. It will collect global measurements of atmospheric CO2 to provide scientists with a better idea of how CO2 impacts climate change and is responsible for Earth’s warming.
During a minimum two-year mission the $467.7 million OCO-2 will take near global measurements to locate the sources and storage places, or ‘sinks’, for atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is a critical component of the planet’s carbon cycle.
OCO-2 was built by Orbital Sciences as a replacement for the original OCO which was destroyed during the failed launch of a Taurus XL rocket from Vandenberg back in February 2009 when the payload fairing failed to open properly and the spacecraft plunged into the ocean.
The OCO-2 mission will provide a global picture of the human and natural sources of carbon dioxide, as well as their “sinks,” the natural ocean and land processes by which carbon dioxide is pulled out of Earth’s atmosphere and stored, according to NASA.
Here’s a NASA description of how OCO-2 collects measurements.
As OCO-2 flies over Earth’s sunlit hemisphere, each spectrometer collects a “frame” three times each second, for a total of about 9,000 frames from each orbit. Each frame is divided into eight spectra, or chemical signatures, that record the amount of molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide over adjacent ground footprints. Each footprint is about 1.3 miles (2.25 kilometers) long and a few hundred yards (meters) wide. When displayed as an image, the eight spectra appear like bar codes — bright bands of light broken by sharp dark lines. The dark lines indicate absorption by molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide.
It will record around 100,000 precise individual CO2 measurements around the worlds entire sunlit hemisphere every day and help determine its source and fate in an effort to understand how human activities impact climate change and how we can mitigate its effects.
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there were about 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. As of today the CO2 level has risen to about 400 parts per million, which is the most in at least 800,000 years, says NASA.
OCO-2 is the second of NASA’s five new Earth science missions planned to launch in 2014 and is designed to operate for at least two years during its primary mission. It follows the successful blastoff of the joint NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory satellite on Feb 27.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.