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NASA’s New Satellite Will Play Weatherman to the World

Last night's launch will give a global view of rain and snowfall.

by Victoria Turk
Feb 28 2014, 11:50am
Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA’s newest satellite, which launched from Japan in the early hours of Friday morning by local time, promises to usher in a new era in a time-honoured human pastime: predicting the weather. Weather forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, though as Motherboard’s Meghan Neal explained last month, advances in tech like big data, crowdsourcing, and supercomputing are helping to clear the fog in future forecasters’ crystal balls. 

The launch of the weather satellite, called the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Obeservatory, is one such game-changer. A joint mission between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), it’s the first time we’ll be able to map the entire Earth’s rain and snowfall. 

The launch was pulled off successfully, and because everyone loves a good lift-off moment, you can watch it in the video below.

Video: NASA Goddard/Youtube

It couldn’t come at a more meteorologically fitting time. Great swathes of the UK are underwater after devastating floods in the rainiest winter for at least a couple of centuries. The US has been battling snow drifts in the polar vortex, which returned for a second visit this week. Climate change is set to bring more precipitation and extreme weather events, and we’ve forgotten our umbrellas; we’re underprepared.

The first step to dealing with our changing climate—or just bad luck weather events (and the two are certainly related)—is to track what’s happening. That’s what the GPM will help us to do. 

NASA explained on its website that the satellite will carry on from the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission, an earlier American-Japanese satellite that continues to measure precipitation in the tropics. “The GPM Core Observatory expands the coverage area from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle,” they wrote. “GPM will also be able to detect light rain and snowfall, a major source of available fresh water in some regions.”

Video: NASA Goddard/Youtube

The Core Observatory will do this using a technology called Dual-Frequency Precipitation Radar, which will “use emitted radar pulses to make detailed measurements of three-dimensional rainfall structure and intensity, allowing scientists to improve estimates of how much water the precipitation holds.” 

It can’t monitor the whole Earth itself, so it will also collect precipitation data from existing and future satellites to get a big-picture look at our wet world. The mission’s science writer Ellen Gray explains that it’ll pull that into one data set and use observations from its own radiometers to unify the measurements.  That allows it to provide a global map every three hours, so scientists can see exactly how storms are intensifying and rainfall changing over time. 

It’s just the first of five NASA Earth Science missions launching this year to keep a check on the planet’s vitals. Satellites are going to be our all-seeing eyes in the battle against that most unpredictable of beasts: the weather.