Science

Monster Machines: This Huge Satellite Will Deliver Insanely Accurate Weather Reports

Europe will receive nearly infallible weather data and save almost $7 billion in weather-related damage annually thanks to this trio of bus-sized spacecraft. This is what the atmosphere will look like in HD.

The MetOp-B satellite, which launched on Monday (local time), is part of a $4 billion joint venture between the European Space Agency and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT). The program is also coordinating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) so that MetOp and similar NOAA satellites can maximise their orbital coverage.

The three MetOp satellites are nearly identical. They weigh slightly more than 4000kg and measure 17.6m × 6.5m × 5.2m with their solar panels fully extended, making them the second largest Earth-observation satellite produced by the Europeans. They will each travel a 820km polar low Earth orbital trajectory during each of their five-year operations. The individual MetOp satellites are not in orbit together but are instead being launched in five-year increments. MetOp-A launched back in 2006, Met-Op-B launched on Monday from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, and MetOp-C is expected to launch some time between 2016 and 2018.

Each MetOp is packed with sensors from Europe, the US, Canada and France that are designed to monitor everything from atmospheric humidity to wind speeds over the ocean to levels of ozone and solar activity. It shares eight instruments with its partner NOAA satellites, including microwave sounding units, very high-resolution radiometers, a search and rescue processor/repeater and a high-resolution infrared radiation sensor. It also carries an Advanced Scatterometer, the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment, and the Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer, the most accurate infrared sounding interferometer currently in orbit. It can scan the atmosphere and measure the temperature and humidity to within 1C and relative 10 per cent respectively for every horizontal kilometre of the air column. “These crucial instruments will be used for weather forecasting and to help us all gain a better understanding of the Earth’s systems,” said Gene Martin, POES Project instrument manager.

The IASI also produces half of all the program’s data, which is processed and stored in on-board SSDs until the 2GB of data can be downloaded at the end of every orbit. It transmits to either McMurdo ground station in Antarctica or the Svalbard Satellite Station in Norway via an X-band antenna. From there, data is transmitted to the EUMETSAT headquarters in Germany where it is published and disseminated to researchers around the globe. In all, the MetOp system provides these climate measurements with a lag of just one hour.

All this near real-time data has revolutionised Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP), which essentially applies statistics and mathematical models to massive data sets of atmospheric information. Researchers can now study high-resolution measurements of the entire Earth’s atmospheric structure in terms of temperature and humidity as well as its chemical composition. In addition, all this data can also be used as a massive, long-term log for climate change studies. As Alain Ratier, EUMETSAT director general, explains, “Our ability to make accurate weather forecasts is vital to Europe. More than a third of our industry is weather dependent.” [PhysOrg - MSNBC - Wired - Guardian - Wikipedia - ESA - NASA]

Image: EUMETSAT


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