New Eyes on the Sky

Wait long enough and the weather changes. And sometimes the instruments scientists use to predict it do, too.

Beyond your local TV weatherman's Super Duper Digital Doppler XT Radar (and your finger in the wind) loom the first images from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) and its companion microwave and humidity measuring units, beamed down from NASA's Aqua spacecraft.

If the names alone aren't enough to spark your interest on a sultry summer day, consider the scientific community's excitement. With its ability to create simultaneous images at different wavelengths, the AIRS system can provide a global, 3-D weather map, allowing meteorologists to "see" through clouds.

Already, scientists predict much-improved short-term weather forecasts (from the current three to five days, to seven to 10), and better tracking of severe storms.

They also note big benefits for the environment. Currently, some 4,000 weather balloons launched daily around the world help tell us what's happening. AIRS can send back the equivalent of the data from 400,000 balloons, providing much more precise climate modeling. This should lead to a better understanding of global warming, for instance, or of the way fresh water is transported around the earth in clouds. Current weather models haven't been sophisticated enough to track that water, an increasingly vital commodity.

Aqua's six-year mission stands to further scientific thought, and help individuals plan for sunny days.

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