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Suomi NPP: Prototype to powerhouse, five years later

Suomi NPP celebrates five years on-orbit

By Eric Lenderman
Since its 2011 launch, Suomi NPP’s weather forecasting and climate monitoring prowess has been indispensable to NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense.When you develop a model that turns into an operational mission, you know you’re doing something right. This was the case with the Ball-built NOAA/NASA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite, which launched Oct. 28, 2011, and celebrates its five-year anniversary this week.

The original intent of the spacecraft bus was to be a prototype pathfinder. But once launched, Suomi NPP performed so well that it’s now the primary polar-orbiting spacecraft for NOAA’s operational weather forecasting mission. Over the course of 14 daily trips around the Earth, Suomi NPP observes our planet’s entire surface twice each day – making maps of both the day-time side and the night-time side – flying in a polar orbit at 512 miles (824 kilometers) high. Its observations help meteorologists improve the accuracy and extend the range of global forecasts three to seven days in advance of significant weather events, including hurricanes and winter storms.

Over the past five years, Suomi NPP has become the bellwether of weather tracking applications. When Hurricane Sandy hit the United States’ east coast in November 2012, Suomi NPP provided critical modeling data that predicted Sandy would take the infamous “left hook” into southern New Jersey. This model gave people on the ground more time to prepare, which saved lives and made a significant difference in how resources were deployed and evacuations planned.

“With Sandy, they were able to get the prediction right,” said Scott Tennant, Ball Aerospace’s program manager for the spacecraft. “I think it saved some lives. It could have been much worse had they not dialed that path right in to determine where the hurricane would land. Suomi NPP gives us more confidence about hurricanes’ paths and how to get people out of the way – safely.”

​Suomi NPP’s modeling data correctly predicted Hurricane Sandy’s path into southern New Jersey, saving thousands of lives.Radio Frequency Project Engineer Jace Gardner credited Suomi NPP’s accurate forecast for giving emergency services due warning to take protective action in response to Sandy.

“When Hurricane Sandy hit, I saw firsthand the life-saving value of Suomi NPP,” recalled Gardner. “As an Air Force meteorologist, I had to tell a 4-star general that the hurricane would turn towards the coast, rather than remain at sea as initially forecasted. I don’t like to tell 4-star generals things like that unless I am darn sure. The data from Suomi NPP made me confident in my analysis.”

The Suomi NPP spacecraft carries five instrument systems, each with a different objective. Together, the systems monitor moisture and pressure, collect infrared and visible light, detect thermal radiation, create global moisture and temperature models and collect ultra-violet data to measure ozone levels via the Ball-built Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS). Whether on land, on water or in the sky, Suomi NPP’s weather-tracking platform has the technology to enhance safety in a variety of near- and longer-term applications.

For example, using Suomi NPP data, firefighters can assess the progress of a wildfire overnight. In the past, they would have to physically go to a fire site in the morning with a crew or aircraft to gauge where the fire had moved or how it had grown. Now, Suomi NPP data allows them to determine whether a fire has moved towards their crew or if it’s moved in a substantially different direction overnight. This data provides a greater level of protection from fire danger. It also enables firefighters to make more informed decisions regarding where to attack – especially if the blaze appears to be approaching buildings or other occupied structures.

OMPS is a collection of advanced imaging spectrometers that enables our exploration and understanding of ozone science.On the tactical-safety side of the coin, Suomi NPP instruments also provide ocean-color capability. When coupled with infrared imaging data, ocean-color imaging can help alert naval units when there’s a storm developing or moving into the path of a fleet. This allows air and water vessels to prepare sooner and more thoroughly for hurricanes, clouds, dust and other weather-related elements.

Suomi NPP even has the capability to help protect air travelers by tracking emissions from volcanoes. The satellite provides data on these emissions and ash as they enter the stratosphere – where airplanes fly – enabling pilots to change flight paths if need be. OMPS data, in particular, are used by the European Space Agency’s Support to Aviation Control Service (SACS) for real-time monitoring of volcanic emission. Scientists use Suomi NPP aerosol data in a similar manner to track particles from wildfire smoke in the upper atmosphere. In turn, atmospheric scientists are utilizing this data to track how and where winds move around the globe and to model atmospheric dynamics.

The Suomi NPP satellite has significantly impacted everyday safety around the world – largely invisible to the general public, but indispensable to the scientific communities at NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense.

Suomi NPP is part of NOAA’s next-generation Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) constellation of polar-orbiting environmental satellites. Ball is also building the next-generation weather spacecraft, JPSS-1, due to launch in 2017. It will carry improved versions of the five instruments on the Suomi NPP satellite, including another Ball-built OMPS instrument.