Yesterday NASA released images from its most recently launched Earth-orbiting satellite, the Suomi NPP. The images it captures demonstrate both the beauty and the benefit that can be gleaned from visions of Earth at night.
The Suomi NPP satellite is significantly more light sensitive than its predecessors. So sensitive, in fact, it can detect the light from a single ship at sea. To put that in numbers: Suomi’s spatial resolution is six times better than the devices that came before it, and the lighting levels show up with 250 times better resolution. And it also has an infrared sensor, which lets it track weather patterns even at night.
The purpose of the satellite goes far beyond awe-inspiring pictures, though: The Suomi NPP collects data on long-term climate change and short-term weather conditions. Armed with this data, which is available to the public hours or even minutes after it is collected, scientists aim to improve the accuracy of forecasts and track the behavior of major weather events 24/7. The value of this anytime technology was demonstrated when Hurricane Sandy came ashore after dark earlier this year.
The Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP), to give its full name, was launched in October 2011 to bridge the gap between the aging Earth Observing System (EOS) satellites and the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) set to launch in 2016. The project combines the forces of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of Defense.
The biggest challenge now is getting the project funded.
NOAA requested $916 million for the project’s budget [pdf] this year, but Congress has yet to approve an appropriations bill. Until the funding issue is resolved, the federal government is tiding JPSS over with a six-month continuing resolution from last year’s budget. This works as a temporary solution, but the research community has expressed concerns that a gap in funding would lead to dangerous gaps in data collection. Without satellites, researchers cannot forecast, track, and warn against severe weather as accurately—nor can they delight us with images such as these.
Images courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC