Are you tired of the weatherman getting the forecast wrong? That might start to happen less often if the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) succeed in a new venture.

The two agencies have teamed up to launch new forecasting technology into space that’s designed to increase the accuracy of our weather predictions. It will also help scientists learn more about long-term patterns in Earth’s environment.

The First Satellite

In November, NASA launched the first of four satellites that are part of the program from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Originally called the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1), NASA renamed the satellite NOAA-20 once it reached its final orbit. It shares an orbit with another joint NOAA/NASA project, the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership satellite.

NOAA-20 is now operating on its own power and will orbit for three months so NASA can ensure all its instruments are working properly before it begins forecasting the weather. Testing the equipment, both while it was on the ground and now in orbit care crucial to the missions success. Scientists need to confirm that there isn’t any interference and that all systems are a go; if not, their predictions wouldn’t be as accurate. The satellite will deliver meteorologists information on cloud cover, atmospheric temperature and moisture, sea-surface temperature, ice cover, ocean cover, volcanic ash levels and wildfires.

These observations, NASA says, can improve the accuracy of weather forecasting and help meteorologists track natural disasters. It will enable them to better predict the paths of hurricanes and provide visualizations of damage from storms and the extent of power outages.

The Technology

NOAA-20 is equipped with technology that’s substantially more advanced that the instruments on earlier NOAA satellites. It includes a Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) and Common Ground System, an Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite instrument, a Cross-Track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), an Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) and the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System instrument.

The VIIRS will provide both visible and infrared imagery of the planet’s surface by capturing light and other waves as they reflect off the Earth’s surface. With a resolution of 2,500 feet, the system can make out individual roads and quantify vegetation levels by measuring the green light spectrum.

The ATMS will provide broad measurements of Earth’s temperature, precipitation, moisture levels and cloud cover. The CrIS instrument, which is six times more accurate than similar apparatus on NOAA’s prior generation of weather satellites, will deliver more precise temperature and moisture measurements.

NOAA-20 is a polar orbiter, which means it will pass over the north and south poles every 45 minutes. To collect the five gigabytes of data the satellite will send down during the 11 minutes it’s within range, Raytheon is upgrading its ground stations in Antarctica, Alaska and Norway. The satellite will beam down approximately 250 GB each day, double what another satellite with a VIIRS launched in 2011 sends back.

What’s Next?

NASA, NOAA and companies working on the project are currently preparing the next satellite for launch. Once all four satellites are in orbit and sending data back to Earth, the information scientists collect will be closer to real time, allowing for more accurate and timely weather prediction. This applies to standard weather forecasting but also to predicting large-scale weather events, such as hurricanes and wildfires. This improved information will allow emergency teams and governments to respond sooner and with more precise information.

NASA and NOAA also want to use this data to monitor long-term changes in the planet’s climate. It will use these satellites to continue to monitor the ozone layer, the growth cycles of vegetation and the radiation budget — the amount of heat the planet absorbs and releases. With the data from this project, we may be able to get a clearer picture of the long-term shifts occurring in our environment, as well as more accurate weather forecasts and natural event predictions.