Orbiting Oracles

Snails, Ticks & Mosquitoes:
How our nation’s satellites contribute beyond the weather forecast

By Roz Brown
There once was a satellite called TIROS. It wasn’t very big – 19 inches high, and only 42 inches in diameter.  It hosted a couple of television cameras designed to take pictures of clouds. After it launched on April 1, 1960, TIROS operated only 78 days, but during its short life showed it was possible – using low and high-resolution cameras – to regularly monitor the Earth’s cloud cover and weather patterns from the vantage point of outer space. TIROS (Television InfraRed Observation Satellite) was the first weather satellite to pique our “need to know” what Mother Nature has in store for us next year, next month, and in our modern full-throttle world an hour from now.

Today there are more than one-thousand active satellites on orbit. Those built specifically for Earth science applications can help save lives by warning us about hurricanes and major storms, allowing time to evacuate communities deemed vulnerable. Pending catastrophes are also avoided when ships and airplanes have time to change course.
Tsunami vs. Suomi
Ball currently has a major role on five of NASA’s Earth science satellites. Most recently, Ball contributed the Earth imager launched aboard Landsat 8 in 2013 and both the satellite and the ozone monitoring instrument flying since 2011 on Suomi NPP,  the National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite. Helping detect a dangerous and deadly tsunami – a seismic sea wave – is just one of the many sensing capabilities aboard NPP. 

Suomi NPP was named in honor of the late Verner Suomi, considered the “father of satellite meteorology.” Suomi first studied meteorology for his doctoral thesis, measuring heat on a cornfield. According to his 1995 New York Times obituary, “In a sense, he realized, the entire planet Earth is simply one big cornfield, getting and losing heat and moisture – making weather – in ways that might be measured and predicted, if scientists were observant and their instruments precise.” Upon Suomi’s death, John D. Wiley, provost at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said, “His inventions were simple and elegant, and their consequences are ubiquitous. Anyone looking at a satellite image of earth on the evening weather is looking at the product of a rare mind.”

Verner Suomi.  Credit:University of Wisconsin CommunicationsBy inventing the spin-scan camera launched in 1966, Suomi made it possible for scientists to observe the same area of the Earth continuously rather than as a series of disjointed images. The series versus singular images allowed scientists to see the formation of weather systems heading toward Earth.

During his lifetime, Suomi established his legacy in the world of satellite meteorology, but with his demonstrated rare-mindedness, he’d surely be pleased to know that much more than weather is being tracked by these orbiting oracles. Now, there’s an unexpected benefit from satellites – they are showing an ability to track possible deadly disease outbreaks.

Clouds Part on Contagion
Today satellites monitor vector-borne diseases including life-threatening diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks or other insects whose latest breeding zones can be monitored from space by mapping temperatures, recent rainfall patterns, soil moisture, vegetation and land use. Public health researchers scrub the satellite data and then predict when and where the disease-carrying pests are most likely to infiltrate next.

At a meeting of the American Association for the Development of Science, researchers presented satellite information being used to predict the risk of snail disease in Africa. The disease is called schistosomiasis, and affects people living in the tropics – especially children.  Using satellite images of soil, water and weather conditions to map where snails are most likely to be found among the villages of coastal Kenya, scientists narrowed the guessing game.

Uriel Kitron, a specialist in vector-borne diseases from Emory University in Atlanta recently told the BBC, “We tried to relate where you lived and where you might go swimming or do laundry to the chance you may become infected.”  That information can be used by local public health agencies to identify snail-rich spots locals should avoid. In North America, Kitron’s team traveled to Chicago to map trees, houses, temperature data and rainfall to see how patterns of rainfall and temperature affect the spread of West Nile virus.

Earth Science missions. Credit:NASAOur “eyes in the skies” weren’t intended for such purposes, but human ingenuity has discovered new uses for our satellite friends. Take, for example, the ozone instrument flying aboard Suomi NPP. Its official name is the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite (OMPS), and it will also fly on JPSS-1 and subsequent builds. OMPS was designed to track the health of the ozone layer and measure the concentration of ozone in Earth’s atmosphere. But scientists are using the OMPS data for much more than monitoring stratospheric ozone.

Beyond the Zone
Aircraft are negatively affected by particulates in the stratosphere – dust entering their engines can cause catastrophic damage.  “OMPS data has proven valuable in monitoring volcanic eruptions and routing aircraft safely around those eruptions,” says Sarah Lipscy, the OMPS deputy program manager and Ball’s OMPS instrument scientist. “It is also being used to monitor the air quality in the upper atmosphere, particularly related to pollution, dust and smoke.”

Landsat 8 may also soon deliver more than meets the eye. The Ball-built Operational Land Imager (OLI) aboard Landsat 8 was designed to monitor land changes and helps scientists plan land uses along with assessing drought to predict fires. But Korean scientists are asking, what about water?  These scientists are investigating whether OLI can help them assess water quality on four of the country’s major rivers.

Who knows what scientists will glean from instruments aboard the next generation of Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites, but as Professor Kitron says, used with care, satellite information can prove very powerful – even for unintended applications like healthcare. To think that little TIROS literally parted the clouds to reveal worlds of new knowledge!
TIROS satellite. Credit: NASA