Launched today in 2006, the CloudSat and CALIPSO satellites are officially teenagers!

On April 28, 2019, the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) and CloudSat satellites mark 13 years in space, where they continue to study the role that clouds and aerosols play in regulating Earth's weather, climate and air quality.

Ball Aerospace designed and built CALIPSO’s light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and wide-field camera instruments. Ball also built the CloudSat spacecraft, and tested and integrated its payload.

Surpassing all expectations for mission lifetime, the two satellites flew in an orbital formation of environmental satellites known as the "A-Train" for more than a decade. In 2018, CALIPSO and Cloudsat left the A-Train and were lowered about 10 miles into their own “C-Train,” where they have resumed working and are delivering collocated measurements.

"The original science goal for CALIPSO was to build a complete data set over four seasons, or 17 months accounting for outages," said Mark LaPole, director of civil space programs at Ball Aerospace. "After 13 years and nearly eight-billion atmospheric profiles, we have certainly given our partners plenty of seasonal and extreme weather data to work with."

“Our team often marvels at the unanticipated scientific benefits of CloudSat’s extended lifetime,” said Scott Tennant, Ball’s CloudSat program manager. “CloudSat data have been cited in more than 2,700 scientific publications, which is a testament to the continuity we have been able to provide to our partners.”

With capabilities 1,000 times more sensitive than typical weather radar, CloudSat uses millimeter-wavelength radar to measure the altitude and properties of clouds. CALIPSO’s LIDAR scans the atmosphere with green and infrared laser light and detects backscatter from clouds and aerosols. The missions’ complementary measurements provide additional clarity for researchers, including providing data important to forecasting models.

CloudSat and CALIPSO data improve weather and climate models, the prediction tools scientists use to study the Earth system, and provide a better understanding of the human impact on the atmosphere. With accurate data in hand, decision makers can make more informed choices about public health, the economy and day-to-day weather predictions.

Data from CALIPSO and CloudSat have been cited in thousands of scientific publications. As recently as 2018, a NASA-led study used CloudSat and CALIPSO data to help answer decades-old questions about the role of smoke and human-caused air pollution on clouds and rainfall.

Among its most significant discoveries, CloudSat has revealed the vertical layering of clouds, how often clouds are present and how often they rain and snow over the Earth – offering insights into the effect of cloudiness on the acceleration of polar and Greenland ice melting. Prior to CloudSat, researchers lacked this information because many regions on Earth, such as oceans and polar regions, are not covered by ground-based instruments.

Mission planners and researchers alike are hopeful that these sibling satellites will continue to provide critical, complementary views of clouds and aerosols for a few years yet.

Learn more about how Ball Aerospace innovations support environmental intelligence.