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Prototype of next-generation weather satellite: Can it go to work fast enough?

After cost overruns and years of delay, the US is set to launch a prototype weather satellite before dawn Friday. Its data are badly needed as the number of Earth-observing satellites dwindle.

By Staff writer / October 27, 2011

Workmen perform final tests on NASA's National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite in a clean room at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Sept. 15. NASA is set to launch this Earth-observing satellite to test new technologies aimed at improving weather forecasts and monitoring climate change.

Ball Aerospace/NASA/AP

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The US is set to launch a prototype weather satellite in the pre-dawn hours Friday morning, a milestone toward the deployment in five years of a much-needed new generation of weather and climate satellites.

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A successful launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, set for 2:48 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, would represent a significant achievement for the program – one that has been delayed by technical challenges, mismanagement, cost-overruns, and a subsequent restructuring of the effort.

That explains why officials, during pre-launch briefings earlier this week, universally expressed their excitement at finally seeing a satellite sitting atop a rocket on the launch pad.

The craft is the first designed “to provide observations for both weather forecasters and climate researchers,” says Jim Gleason, a researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Institute in Greenbelt, Md., and the mission's project scientist.

Known by its initials NPP, the mission is designed to collect some 30 different kinds of data ranging from the amount of solar energy the Earth receives and reflects, to measurements of temperature and water vapor, to tracking changes in vegetation on land and plankton at sea.

Four of the spacecraft's five instruments have never flown before, although they will be observing the same weather and climate features that instruments on previous missions have measured.

The five-year NPP mission is designed to give these four instruments a rigorous shake-down cruise, as well as to iron out any kinks in the ground network established to receive and distribute the large amounts of data the craft is designed to deliver.

Orbiting over the poles at an altitude of some 512 miles, the craft is expected to beam 800 DVDs' worth of information back to Earth each day.

And while the mission is largely a test drive for the satellite and ground systems, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be folding the satellite's information into their weather forecasts from the beginning.

Satellite data form “the backbone” of information computer models need to help forecasters anticipate weather conditions, notes Mitch Goldberg, chief of satellite meteorology and climatology at NOAA and the program scientist for the new generation of weather satellites the NPP mission is supporting.

The data these satellites are designed to deliver will be crucial as NOAA strives to stretch the lead time for severe-weather forecasts, particularly those dealing with hurricanes, from the current five-day outlooks to seven days, Dr. Goldberg says.

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