Looking down on the weather: a brief history

Today we can be inclined to take rocket launches for granted, says Dr Simon Keogh who leads the Met Office Satellite Data Products and Systems group in the first of a series of blogs on satellites. There was once a time, he adds, when every blast off to the heavens captured the public’s imagination. Families would be glued to TV sets to see the latest episode in the unfolding drama of mankind probing the universe. These days, launches happen so frequently they barely get a mention in the press: unless of course there is a significant incident or the mission happens to be carrying an important payload, such as Britain’s heroic astronaut Tim Peake.

A modern satellite launch. S-NPP weather satellite blasts off in 2011 (courtesy of NASA).

A modern satellite launch. S-NPP weather satellite blasts off in 2011 (courtesy of NASA).

We may have taken the launches for granted, but we mustn’t overlook the role that space missions and satellites play in our everyday lives. From communications and weather observation to GPS satellite navigation on your smartphone. This technology has revolutionised our existence and it is fundamental to our everyday lives.

From a meteorological point of view, satellites have given us a new insight into the world’s weather and climate.

The TIROS-1 satellite was launched way back in 1960 but operated for only a mere 78 days. Although its useful life was extremely brief, it was a glorious time and the mission was widely deemed to be hugely successful. The first imagery that came back marked the dawn of a new era in Earth observation. Never before had scientists had the ability to monitor large storms on their way to make landfall.


The TIROS-1 satellite’s technology enables it to capture detailed images of the earth, such as the view of Nile (inset). Picture courtesy: NASA

It was suddenly apparent to the world’s scientists that if only there were enough of these satellites then perhaps it would be possible to evacuate towns in the path of severe weather, saving lives and livelihoods in the process. This truly did seem at the time to be the most promising societal application for space technology – and so it has arguably continued to be. As basic as the TIROS-1 satellite was, its impact has clearly inspired a long-lasting boom in the construction of satellites for monitoring our changing weather.

If you’d like to know more about the legacy of TIROS-1 and the constellation of satellites we have today, then look out for our week-long series on satellites.

Dr Simon Keogh leads the Met Office Satellite Data Products and Systems group. He is a member of a United Nations WMO expert team on Satellite Utilisation and Products and is the UK delegate to EUMETSAT’s Operations Working Group.


This entry was posted in Met Office News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.