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How Do Weather Satellites Work
The Detroit Post
Sunday, 28 November, 2021

How Do Weather Satellites Work

Brent Mccoy
• Friday, 20 November, 2020
• 8 min read

Although it's hard to pinpoint the precise amount of active weather satellites in orbit right now, it's a significant number, and new ones with more advanced and accurate measuring equipment gets launched on regularly. This article examines what a weather satellite is, how it works, and also take a look at the different types of weather satellites.

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A number of countries currently have multiple weather satellites in space to monitor the weather and climate, including Japan, The United States, China, Europa, and Russia. A weather satellite is a man-made object whose primary purpose is to measure and collect meteorological data of a range of atmospheric parameters.

It gets launched into space, where it orbits the Earth or remain in a stationary position over a specific point over the equator. Rain, snow, ice, fire, cloud systems, dust storms, air pollution, volcanic ash, and ocean currents are just some many parameters that a weather satellite measure.

All the data collected by these satellites get sent back to Earth where meteorologists and climatologists use it to monitor current atmospheric conditions, predict future weather events, and create or refine forecast models. The most significant difference is the type of equipment it carries onboard and its unique orbits and positioning around the Earth.

Rockets: The propulsion system using onboard fuel to make small orbital adjustments and minor maneuvers. Thermal System: For protecting electronics and sensitive equipment from the extreme heat and cold temperatures in space.

To accomplish this, they need a rocket that is powerful enough to break free from the planets gravitational forces and carry the satellite into its designated orbit. Once it cleared the strongest gravitational forces, it can carry the satellite in low, medium, or high orbit.

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This speed was calculated to balance the satellite's velocity with Earth's gravity to maintain a constant altitude. The satellite's speed needs to be fast enough not to get dragged down by the planet's gravity, yet slow enough to not completely break free from all gravitational forces and travel straight into space.

What this means is that satellites like the GOES-16 can capture detailed images of a wide range of parameters in the atmosphere, from cloud formation, land surface temperature, ocean currents, and even aerosols and vegetative health. They use for accurate weather predictions, do impact studies, conduct meteorological risk assessments, and refine climate models, to mention just a few.

The images and data that gets captured come from two types of weather satellites that are classified according to their orbit around Earth, which will be discussed in the next section. The low orbit allows a satellite to cover every location on Earth, and image the same area twice a day.

The ability to cover the entire planet frequently at low orbit allow polar-orbiting satellites to get a much more detailed look at the surface and atmosphere at any given time. The latest generation of these satellites are especially well-equipped to measure specific aspects of weather like atmospheric temperatures, various cloud parameters, as well as, humidity fields.

One of the many advantages that this type of orbit provides is that a ground station can place a directional antenna in a fixed position, and it will stay in communication with the geostationary satellite without continuous adjustments. Some are used for communication by the army and by regular people, some are used to take pictures of the earth, and then there are those that help us collect data about the weather.

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Many countries will work together to put satellites into the earth’s orbit so that they all can benefit from it being there. There are two main types of satellites based on their orbital pattern around Earth.

These satellites remain in a low orbit of 500 miles above the Earth. They are used to collecting information which predicts daily weather conditions such as temperature and rainfall.

They fly in a pattern over the equator at the same speed as the rotation of earth. They are used to monitor the same areas and how weather conditions like storms develop over time.

Weather satellites provide vital information about cloud patterns and ground and sea temperatures. All this information is sent to a communications center on earth that in turn distributes it to whoever needs or wants it.

At that distance, the satellite travels through space at the same speed of the Earth, and this allows it to look at the same place all the time. Because they stay over the same place, geostationary satellites are better at monitoring how weather conditions, like storms, develop and change over time.

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Weather satellite in orbit Weather satellites can see very long distances because they fly hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles above the Earth. They don't have eyes to see with, but they do use special tools called radiometers (pronounced ra-di-o-me-ters), which are made up of sensors that allow them to scan the Earth and detect different types of energy.

After the satellites gather the information, they transmit it back to Earth, where it is collected and analyzed by meteorologists (pronounced me·the·or·of·o·lists), or people who study weather. This analysis is then put on television, the internet or other forms of media so that we know what kind of weather to expect.

They can tell us whether it will be rainy or sunny, if it will snow, or if we will have a cold front or a hot spell. They can tell us when dangerous weather, like a hurricane or tornado, is coming, so we can prepare for it and stay safe.

Pilots and sailors need information about the weather in order to safely fly their planes and sail their ships away from storms. Weather satellites carry instruments called radiometers (not cameras) that scan the Earth to form images.

These instruments usually have some sort of small telescope or antenna, a scanning mechanism, and one or more detectors that detect either visible, infrared, or microwave radiation for the purpose of monitoring weather systems around the world. The measurements these instruments make are in the form of electrical voltages, which are digitized and then transmitted to receiving stations on the ground.


The data are then relayed to various weather forecast centers around the world, and are made available over the internet in the form of images. Because weather changes quickly, the time from satellite measurement to image availability can be less than a minute.

Weather satellites are put into one of two kinds of orbits around the Earth, each of which has advantages (and disadvantages) for weather monitoring. The European Space Agency's Meters satellite provides coverage of Europe and Africa.

These orbits are “sun-synchronous”, allowing the satellite to measure the same location on the Earth twice each day at the same local time. Also, the lower orbit allows microwave radiometers to be used, which must have relatively large antennas in order to achieve ground resolutions fine enough to be useful.

Climate satellites convey instruments called radiometers (not cameras) that filter the Earth to shape pictures. These instruments for the most part have a type of little telescope or receiving wire, an examining component, and at least one locator that distinguish either noticeable, infrared, or microwave radiation to screen climate frameworks around the globe.

The estimations these instruments make are as electrical voltages, which are digitized and afterward transmitted to getting stations on the ground. The greater part of the satellites and instruments they convey are intended to work for 3 to 7 years, albeit many them last any longer than that.

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This permits the satellite to see the equivalent geographic zone ceaselessly, and is utilized to give the majority of the satellite symbolism you see on TV. For example, GOES-East and GOES-West give inclusion of a great part of the Western Hemisphere, from the western bank of Africa toward the West Pacific, and the Arctic to the Antarctic. RavanCredit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory artist’s conceptThere are numerous satellites in space that have various capacities.

The other circle type is called close polar, sun-synchronous (or simply “polar”), where the satellite is placed into a generally low elevation circle (around 500 miles) that conveys the satellite close to the North Pole and the South Pole roughly at regular intervals. Likewise, the lower circle permits microwave radiometers to be utilized, which must have generally huge receiving wires to accomplish ground goals sufficiently fine to be helpful.

The expectations are then common in papers, the web and TV to enable us to recognize what sort of climate to anticipate. In this slideshow, we'll explore the basics, from how weathersatelliteswork to how the imagery produced from them is used for forecasting certain weather events.

Just like rooftop or mountaintop views offer a wider view of your surroundings, a weather satellite's position several hundred to thousands of miles above Earth's surface allows for the weather in a neighboring part of the US or that hasn't even entered the West or East Coast borders yet, to be observed. Weather satellites are also used to monitor environmental events that interact with the atmosphere and have broad areal coverage, such as wildfires, dust storms, snow cover, sea ice, and ocean temperatures.

Called Does (short for Polar Operating Environmental Satellite), one operates during the morning and one during the evening. Tires 1, the first weather satellite in existence, was polar-orbiting, meaning it passed over the North and South Poles each time it revolved around the Earth.

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As you might think, this makes them good at capturing high-resolution images, but a drawback of being so close is they can only “see” a narrow swath of area at one time. In order for geostationary satellites to keep pace with Earth, they must orbit at a greater distance from it (an altitude of 22,236 miles (35,786 km) to be exact).

And at this increased distance, both image detail and views of the poles (due to Earth’s curvature) are lost. Canada Center for Remote Sensing Delicate sensors within the satellite, called radiometers, measure radiation (i.e., energy) given off by the Earth's surface, most of which is invisible to the naked eye.

That's because similar to a digital or 35 mm camera, satellites sensitive to visible wavelengths record beams of sunlight reflected off of an object. The more sunlight an object (like our land and ocean) absorbs, the less light it reflects back out into space, and the darker these areas appear in the visible wavelength.

Conversely, objects with high reflectivity, or albedos, (like the tops of clouds) appear the brightest white because they bounce large amounts of light off of their surfaces. Since sunlight is required to capture visible satellite images, they are not available during the evening and overnight hours.

NOAA Water vapor is detected for its energy emitted in the infrared to terahertz range of the spectrum. Like visible and IR, its images depict clouds, but an added advantage is that they also show water in its gaseous state.

Meteorologists use water vapor images to forecast things like how much moisture will be associated with an upcoming rain or snow event. They can also be used to find the jet stream (it's located along the boundary of dry and moist air).

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