Suomi Now Smiles Down Upon Us

NASA and NOAA announced today at the AMS Annual Meeting in New Orleans that they have renamed the recently launched polar orbiter, NPOESS preparatory project, the Suomi NPP, after the late Verner Suomi, who was one of the pioneers in creating instruments for satellite observations of the weather. AMS annually gives out a prestigious Verner Suomi Award for technological achievement–this year’s winner is Anne Thompson.
“Verner Suomi’s many scientific and engineering contributions were fundamental to our current ability to learn about Earth’s weather and climate from space,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Suomi NPP not only will extend more than four decades of NASA satellite observations of our planet, it also will usher in a new era of climate-change discovery and weather forecasting.”
Suomi, who died in 1995 at the age of 79, spent nearly his entire career at Univ. of Wisconsin. He is legendary for developing the spin-scan camera, which allowed satellites in stationary orbit of one point on Earth to maintain continuous focus and enable, among other capabilities, the instant-replay-style weather images we watch on television.
In 1968 he won the AMS’s highest award, the Rossby Medal

for his imagination, ingenuity, and versatility in conceiving and designing diverse meteorological sensors which have helped to transform the satellite as a meteorological probe from a dream to a reality. His Spin-Scan camera has given us our most comprehensive views of the atmosphere as an entity, and has already led to revised ideas concerning the circulation in lower latitudes.

and in 1977, he received the National Medal of Science — one of many awards — though his son Eric Suomi expects his father would have been particularly appreciative of Suomi NPP’s mission and new name.
The University of Wisconsin gathered comments on the name change:

“I think this is an excellent match,” says Eric Suomi, an electrical engineer who lives in Madison. “Had my father still been around, he would have been pushing for more of the kind of instruments on this satellite and the observations they’ll be making of our planet.”
“Vern flew the first experiment to look at the Earth from space on Explorer 7,” says Hank Revercomb, a Suomi collaborator and director of UW-Madison’sSpace Science and Engineering Center, which Suomi helped establish in 1965. “That was a radiation budget experiment, and there is actually a similar experiment, an instrument called ‘CERES,’ on the spacecraft they’ve named for him.”
Suomi NPP will also add to long-term climate records, monitor the health of the ozone layer, measure global ice cover and air pollution levels, map vegetation and — with the help of a sounder, an instrument conceived by Suomi and refined by Revercomb — contribute to better weather forecasts with sharper data on cloud cover, wind, temperature and atmospheric moisture.
“This satellite is designed to study the atmosphere and improve our understanding of how and why changes make a difference in our weather and climate,” Univ of Wisconsin Professor Steve Ackerman says. “Those were Day One objectives of Verner’s from the 1950s.”


iPhone Game Puts Satellite Data in Your Hands

The Los Angeles Times compares it to Tetris and calls it “the nerdiest game ever“. As far as we’re concerned, that’s a sure-fire journalistic badge of honor for Satellite Insight, the new iPhone game app from NASA and NOAA.
The object of the new game is to control real-time Earth and space weather data. Colored blocks falling into columns on a grid represent small pieces of data. To save lives and protect expensive instruments, the GOES-R weather satellite must not lose any data. Players bundle like data types together before the grid overflows. Data blocks fall slowly at first, but arrive faster as the game continues. Each speed-up also brings a power-up tool you can use at any time to help clear the grid. Keep it going as long as you can and try to beat your best time. Explains NASA’s web site:

No matter how thirsty you are, it’s not easy to drink from a fire hose. But that’s similar to the challenge of capturing and storing the huge blast of images and information that the new GOES-R weather satellite will gather.

And of course, as a NASA and NOAA product, the game has an educational mission too–the instructions include information about the upcoming real-life GOES-R satellite.
Satellite Insight is available free for iPhone and other iOS devices on iTunes. Check it out here.

Jack Townsend, Shepherd of Weather Satellite Technology

The passing of AMS Fellow John W. (“Jack”) Townsend on October 29 serves as a fitting moment to register the evolving national relationship with space technology over six decades.

“Jack Townsend was truly one of the seminal figures in the history of NASA, and certainly, in the history of Goddard,” said current Goddard Spaceflight Institute Director Rob Strain. “The story of the space program simply could not be written without a chapter devoted to him. He dedicated his life to the exploration of space and the study of our planet, and humankind is richer for the knowledge he helped generate.”

Townsend was one of the first employees at Goddard in 1959, where he directed the satellite applications efforts, at a time when the nation was racing to enter the Space Age. He had already cut his teeth on space technology, first in radar countermeasures aboard B-29 bombers in World War II and, by 1949, working with V-2 rockets. Townsend helped bring satellite meteorology to fruition in the 1960s as Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Science Services Administrator (predecessor to today’s NOAA). After a decade at Fairchild Industries, he returned to NASA after the Challenger disaster, and then for three years as Director of Goddard.

Townsend retold the story of the origins of weather satellites just a year ago in an interview with archivist/historian Doria Grimes:

[E]verything started with sounding rockets just after World War II. I went to work for the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) following my graduate degree in physics. The sounding rocket program had just started at NRL and it involved the Army, Navy, and Air Force…. Interestingly enough, at White Sands, New Mexico, we flew rockets out over the desert in the late 1940’s. We put cameras on them called gun sight aiming point cameras, “GSAPs”. The idea of the camera was that as the rocket went up and rotated, it took pictures of the earth in swaths. You would use those pictures to reconstruct the attitude of the rocket.

One day we had a shot in New Mexico in which we caught what looked like a storm in pictures off to the southeast. One of the guys who worked for me, Otto Berg, made a composite picture of nearly 1,000 tiny GSAP pictures, a total mosaic of a storm. It looked exactly like a hurricane, and attracted the Weather Bureau’s attention. It was in the early 50’s – all before Sputnik.

The pictures stirred interest from Harry Wexler at the Weather Bureau, and eventually a classified Army satellite project was moved into the new NASA, gradually became declassified, leading to the first weather satellite, TIROS. It was during this period that Townsend and other American science administrators were involved with negotiating peaceful uses of space technology with their Soviet counterparts.

The subject came up of transferring data. We, at that time, expected to launch the research meteorological satellites. They promised they were going to launch meteorological rockets and satellites. Incidentally, they never did. But they wanted the transferred data because Russian ground data was very sparse, and these data meant a lot to them as a country. With the free transfer of meteorological data and satellite pictures, we had an issue, a big issue. Who pays for the communication expenses between Washington and Moscow? We got into a big fight about that, and the agreement had been to share. The Russians said that since the U.S. owns all these communications facilities, the U.S. should pay for 90% of it. Then the Russians said that the ruble was not worth as much money as the dollar. Finally, I came up with one of the only brilliant ideas I ever came up with. I said sharing means 50/50. We’ll pay the bill for three months, and you pay it for three months….So I cut this deal with the Russians on how to pay for it. [His Russian negotiating counterpart] Blagonravov thought it was funny. He laughed, and said to me, “I am glad I am too old to send to Siberia.” He was a lieutenant general which is a five star rank in those days, and he also was a communist and believed in the system. He was a neat guy and I got to like him.

The whole interview (transcript here) has more on the origins of the space program, NOAA, and operationsl satellites. You’ll get the sense that the field was guided then by strong personalities and a country committed to technology. [For more on the early development of weather satellites, specifically TIROS, check out James Rodger Fleming’s presentation on “Transformative Technologies and International Cooperation in the Career of Harry Wexler” at the 2012 AMS Annual Meeting (11 a.m., Tuesday 24 January)].

Here Comes the Sun–All 360 Degrees

The understanding and forecasting of space weather could take great steps forward with the help of NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) mission, which recently captured the first-ever images taken simultaneously from opposite sides of the sun. NASA launched two STEREO probes in October of 2006, and on February 6 they finally reached their positions 180 degrees apart from each other, where they could each photograph half of the sun. The STEREO probes are tuned to wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet radiation that will allow them to monitor such solar activity as sunspots, flares, tsunamis, and magnetic filaments, and the probes’ positioning means that this activity will never be hidden, so storms originating from the far side of the sun will no longer be a surprise. The 360-degree views will also facilitate the study of other solar phenomenon, such as the possibility that solar eruptions on opposite sides of the sun can gain intensity by feeding off each other. The NASA clip below includes video of the historic 360-degree view.