The first US weather satellite was developed by the Department of Defense (DoD) in the late 1950s. Created to study meteorological events, TIROS, or Television Infrared Observation Satellite, was transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959. DoD continued developing its own weather satellite system which eventually evolved into the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP).
In 1960, NASA launched the second TIROS (TIROS-1) with a mission to continuously orbit the poles. TIROS-1 provided forecasters with the first view of cloud patterns over North America. TIROS-1 operations were later turned over to the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA).
ESSA managed additional polar-orbiting research satellites that were launched during the 1960s. With each new satellite, new equipment was developed and tested, including optical lenses and transmission techniques. TIROS-8 tested an Automatic Picture Transmission system that directly relayed imagery to stations on the ground. TIROS-9 gave scientists the first complete daily coverage of the earth during day time. In 1965, the Nimbus-1 satellite carried an infrared sensor that allowed scientists to observe the first nighttime images from space.
The first operational weather satellite system was launched in 1966 with the ESSA-1 and ESSA-2 satellites. The ESSA program provided cloud-cover photography to the American National Meteorological Center. Over a period of almost four years, ESSA satellites transmitted thousands of images back to Earth, enabling predictions of weather patterns, including hurricanes. Because a rapid advances in satellite technology, the ESSA program, which would include nine satellites, only lasted six years before being replaced by a more advanced TIROS system.
In 1970, the Nixon administration decided to establish a new agency
to oversee the country’s weather satellites in an effort to learn more about the way oceans and the atmosphere function. ESSA was replaced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA originally consisted of six divisions, two of which managed weather satellites and the collection of data sent back by the satellites: the National Environmental Satellite Service and the Environmental Data Service.
In 1972, NOAA launched the Improved TIROS Operational System (ITOS) which proved superior to the ESSA satellites. ITOS provided day and night viewing of Earth cloud coverage, and simultaneous broadcasts of data and data storage for later playback by ground observers. ITOS also measured snow, ice and sea surfaces and gathered temperature and moisture profiles daily. Later ITOS satellites were able to provide global daytime and nighttime real-time cloud cover data.
The early 1970s also witnessed an important development in satellite technology with the launch of the precursor to the geo-stationary satellite. The Applications Technology Satellite (ATS) orbited above the equator at a “medium” altitude of 22,235 miles. At lower altitudes, satellites had to orbit the Earth more than once per day and thus did not “hover” over the same area of the Earth’s surface all the time. But ATS was able to maintain the same position in orbit and keep continuous watch over Western Hemisphere weather.
The success of ATS for weather research led NASA and NOAA to collaborate on the development and launch of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program in the mid 1970s. By 1980, the fourth GOES satellite, GOES-4, provided scientists with continuous temperature and moisture data and allowed “frame-to-frame” cloud movement observation for wind speed, direction and a better understanding of atmospheric circulation patterns. That same year, NOAA decided to consolidate the responsibilities of the National Environmental Satellite Service and the Environmental Data Service into the newly formed National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS).
NESDIS has continued to manage the GOES system until the present. These satellites observe 60% of the Earth, measuring the planet’s atmosphere, surface, cloud cover and the solar and space environments. The eastern GOES satellite is positioned to provide the best view from near Western Africa to beyond the central part of the United States, and the western satellite provides coverage from the center of the United States to beyond Hawaii. Together, these satellites provide NESDIS with a complete, continuous view of the United States.
NESDIS also managed another satellite system, the Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (POES), the modern-day equivalent of the TIROS. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, efforts to reduce government spending prompted a re-examination of weather satellite programs managed by different agencies. In addition to NESDIS’s polar-orbiting satellites, the Pentagon still had its meteorological satellite system, DMSP. Following on the recommendations by a 1992 National Space Council study, NESDIS’s parent agency, NOAA, decided to combine POES with DoD’s system and manage it together along with NASA, creating the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOES).
Following the establishment of NPOES, officials decided in the 1990s to embark on a program to upgrade the satellites used for the newly integrated system. That effort has experienced delays and cost overruns, pushing back its launch to 2010 (see Controversies).
The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS)