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This machine helped predict the weekend's giant blizzard

Illustration for article titled This machine helped predict the weekends giant blizzard

All up and down the east coast of North America, news of an incoming blizzard has been brewing for days. Before it hit, people from New York and Connecticut to Ontario knew in advance to expect over a foot of snow. We take this kind of accurate forecasting for granted, but we shouldn't. Our ability to predict the weather all depends on just a few satellites, and there is one satellite in particular, Suomi NPP, that is preventing you from getting a nasty surprise from the sky. NPP won't last, though. In the next few years, NPP is set to be replaced by a satellite that will hopefully keep us predicting the future accurately — at least, if all goes according to plan.


The satellites that monitor weather in North America are usually the shared responsibility of NASA and NOAA, and like NPP they are encrusted with instruments that measure everything from Earth's energy output and atmospheric composition to weather formations and ice sheets. They're important for gathering data about long-term climate changes, but more importantly they make our everyday lives easier by predicting short-term climate changes — like, say, gigantic snowstorms that are burying Toronto, Boston and New York City even as I write this.

Illustration for article titled This machine helped predict the weekends giant blizzard

The NPP satellite, which you see under construction above, is a polar orbiting satellite, which means it flies over each pole every day, circling through the planet's latitudes to get a complete picture of Earth's surface. It was indispensable in predicting the pathway that hurricane Katrina would take. NOAA recently retired the GOES-7 weather satellite after 25 years of work, so NPP will be one of our only satellites for predicting and monitoring Earth weather until 2017, when NASA/NOAA will launch their next-generation JPSS-1 satellite. Unfortunately, NPP is just a stop gap measure, and it won't last for more than three years. If anything happens to NPP, or if the JPSS-1 launch is delayed, we might lose our ability to predict extreme weather and warn people.

According to NOAA:

Once the polar-orbiting data is retrieved from the JPSS satellites, the JPSS data is entered into NWP models that are utilized by NOAA's National Weather Service to better predict medium- and long-term weather, including severe weather phenomena. For example, during the early stages of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, the polar-orbiting satellite data helped NOAA's National Weather Service forecasters and scientists accurately predict Sandy's hurricane track and infamous ‘left hook' landfall into New York and New Jersey-more than five days in advance.

Illustration for article titled This machine helped predict the weekends giant blizzard

The planned JPSS-1 satellite, launching in 2017, is absolutely vital to the future of, well, predicting the future. It will last at least seven years, and will host the five major instruments that NPP now carries, only on a more stable platform. That's an artist's rendition of it below. More satellites are planned to launch after JPSS-1, too, each with more advanced instrumentation for a broader range of scientific projects. If you're grateful to the weather service for letting you know not to go outside today on the north American east coast, don't be. Thank the people who develop and operate satellites like NPP and JPSS-1. They're all that stands between you and a very unexpected storm.

Illustration for article titled This machine helped predict the weekends giant blizzard

Thanks to Tim De Chant for telling me about JPSS!


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Ravenous Sophovore

That stand that supports and rotates the sattellite really takes me back.

Years ago, I worked for Raytheon, major government military contractor. Nearby was Lockheed Martin, our main competitor for satellite bids. One day, some employees at Lockheed unbolted the satellite from a contraption like that and neglected to rebolt it down when finished. The next day, some employees went to spin the satellite around and lower it to reach the side, and the damn thing fell over.

That might not seem like much, but, to put it in layman's terms, it totaled a multimillion dollar satellite. It was scrapped.

Needless to say, those guys from Lockheed got a lot of ribbing every time we saw them around town at lunchtime for months.