Successful Launch For NASA's NPP Satellite
October 28, 2011

Successful Launch For NASA’s NPP Satellite

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After a five-year delay, NASA´s NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California this morning at about 2:48 a.m. local time (5:48 EDT) aboard a Delta II rocket.

The NPP satellite will be lifted by the rocket to its 512-mile-high orbit above Earth where it should separate from the second stage rocket at about 6:45 a.m. (PDT).

The $1.5 billion NPP weather and climate satellite represents a critical first step in building the next-generation Earth-observing satellite system that will collect data on both long-term climate change and short-term weather conditions.

NPP will improve on current Earth system data records established by NASA´s Earth Observing System (OES) fleet of satellites that have so far provided vast data on everything from clouds to the oceans to vegetation.

NPP, while providing operational data to meteorologists for forecasting weather, will also have to test newly-designed Earth observing instruments outfitted on the two-ton satellite.

It has five instruments onboard that will monitor land, ocean, and atmospheric conditions. It will measure temperature and humidity changes in the air; study the spread of algal blooms in the oceans; and also how the Arctic ice is being affected by global warming.

“NPP´s observations will produce long-term datasets which will help scientists make better models, which then lead to better predictions, which hopefully can be used to make better decisions,” Dr. Jim Gleason, the NPP project scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told BBC's Jonathan Amos.

“These decisions can be as simple as ℠do I need to bring an umbrella?´, or as complex as ℠how do we respond to a changing climate?´” he added.

NPP´s climate role requires it to continue datasets acquired over the past ten years by NASA´s EOS satellites: Aqua, Aura, and Terra.

But it must also connect with NOAA´s existing line of polar-orbiting weather satellites and the agency´s future fleet, known as Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

“The NPP mission design life is five years; it has propellant in its propulsion system for seven years,” Scott Asbury told Amos. Asbury works at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation, which built NPP. 

“NASA is concerned about the longevity of the instruments on board. They were built to prove the instruments in the future operational system, and there were some anomalies in the development of the instruments that had to be overcome,” Asbury told BBC.

“NOAA´s target date for launching JPSS-1 is the first quarter of 2017. So they´re worried NPP won´t last long enough to get JPSS-1 up on orbit and fully commissioned,” he noted.

America currently shares its weather data with Europe, which flies its own polar-orbiting satellite system known as METOP.

The European satellite crosses the equator in the morning and NPP will cross the equator in the afternoon, providing the fullest picture of what is happening on the planet throughout the day. If a replacement doesn´t go up before NPP´s steam runs out it would deal a major blow to weather forecasting and climate studies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dr Louis Uccellini, who directs NOAA´s National Centers for Environmental Prediction, said NPP´s importance was underscored by events in 2011, which he described as “the year of the billion-dollar weather disasters.”

“We´ve already had 10 separate weather events [in the US], each inflicting at least $1 billion in damages, including the tornado outbreaks, fires, hurricanes that have affected the East Coast of the US, and floods that have affected a large portion of the north-central US,” he told BBC.

“With NPP´s advanced microwave, infrared and visible data feeding NOAA´s operational weather prediction models, we expect to improve forecasting skills and extend those skills out to five to seven days in advance, for hurricanes and other extreme weather events,” he added.

NASA´s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland is managing NPP for the Earth Science Division in NASA´s Science Mission Directorate. NPP is a joint effort between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with some input also coming from the US Department of Defense.


Image Caption: On Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, an arc of light illuminates the pre-dawn sky at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., as a Delta II rocket launches with the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft payload. NPP carries five science instruments, including four new state-of-the-art sensors, which will provide critical data to help scientists understand the dynamics of long-term climate patterns and help meteorologists improve short-term weather forecasts.  Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls


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