Nasa to launch Earth-observing satellite
25 October 2011, 11:35
Los Angeles - After a five-year delay, an Earth-observing satellite will be launched to test new technologies aimed at improving weather forecasts and monitoring climate change.
The $1.5bn Nasa mission comes in a year of weather extremes from the Midwest tornado outbreak to the Southwest wildfires to hurricane-caused flooding in New England.
"We've already had 10 separate weather events, each inflicting at least $1bn in damages," said Louis Uccellini of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The satellite will lift off before dawn on Friday from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, aboard a Delta 2 rocket that will boost it into an orbit some 800km high.
The space agency already has a fleet of satellites circling the Earth, taking measurements of the atmosphere, clouds and oceans. But many are ageing and need replacement.
The latest - about the size of a small school bus - is more sophisticated. It carries five instruments to collect environmental data, including four that never before have been flown into space.
One of the satellite's main jobs is to test key technologies that will be used by next-generation satellites set to launch in a few years.
NOAA meteorologists plan to feed the observations into their weather models to better anticipate and track hurricanes, tornadoes and other extreme weather.
The information will "help us understand what tomorrow will bring", whether it's the next-day forecast or long-term climate change, said Andrew Carson, the mission's programme executive at Nasa headquarters.
The satellite is part of a bigger programme with a troubled history. Originally envisioned as a joint civil-military weather satellite project, ballooning costs and schedule delays caused the White House to dissolve the partnership in 2010.
Under the restructuring, the Defence Department is building its own military satellites while Nasa is developing a new generation of research satellites for NOAA. Friday's launch is considered the first step toward that goal.
For the launch, Nasa invited 20 of its Twitter followers to Vandenberg, where they will receive front-row seats to view the lift-off.
Once in orbit, the satellite, built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp in Boulder, Colorado, will spend the next five years circling the Earth from pole to pole about a dozen times a day. Data will be transmitted to a ground station in Norway and routed to the US via fibre optic cable.