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Weather Satellites Now Three Decades Old

April 4, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When that first fuzzy satellite picture of the earth arrived just over 30 years ago weather experts were overjoyed.

Now, ″there was no way that any storm, anywhere in the world, would go undetected,″ John W. Townsend Jr., director of NASA’s Goddard Space Center, recalled on Wednesday.

And none has, though people sometimes ignore the warnings that weather forecasters issue when storms are reported, he noted at a news conference commemorating three decades of weather satellites.

″The 90s is turning out to be the decade of the climate. The point to be made today is that we’ve been around for 30 years measuring climate from space. We’re not a ‘Johnny-come-lately,’ ″ said Russell Koffler of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Satellites have ″revolutionized″ the science of weather prediction, added J. E. Keigler, chief scientist for GE Astro Space, which builds the Tiros weather satellites.

He recalled meteorologists saying that the original machine would be worthwhile if it produced just one picture.

Tiros 1 went on to produce 22,000 pictures during its three-month lifetime, which began April 1, 1960.

″And since then there’s always been a Tiros in orbit,″ he added, referring to the series of low-level weather satellites that still circle the globe, measuring the climate and weather every place on earth twice a day.

The low-level satellites marking their 30th anniversary are generically called Tiros, which is an abbreviation for Television Infrared Observation Satellite.

These days the public is more familiar with the GOES satellites that hover in place over the equator, looking down at the whole Earth from 22,300 miles in space.

But still a pair of Tiros satellites zoom around the globe at a mere 700 or so miles, getting a close look. So far 32 of these satellites have been built and launched, with an average lifepsan of 2 1/2 years.

And, while the first satellites were limited to pictures of what is visible - land, water and clouds - now they measure much more.

Air and sea-surface temperatures are taken, snow and ice cover is tracked, ozone is measured, cloud cover measured, water vapor in the air recorded and the radiation arriving from the sun and departing from the Earth is tracked by these satellites, explained Koffler.

Even the amount of vegetation on the land is measured from the satellites, he added, noting that this information is expected to be especially useful in assessing the response to any global changes in climate.

The satellites are operated by NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service and are known by the designation NOAA when in service. A new NOAA satellite is scheduled for launch in the fall.

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