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First Images From NASA’s CloudSat Have Scientists Sky High


June 6, 2006

The first images from NASA’s new CloudSat satellite are already revealing never-before-seen 3-D details about clouds.

Mission managers tested the flight and ground system performance of the satellite’s Cloud-Profiling Radar in late May, and found it to be working perfectly. The satellite’s first images may be viewed at:

“CloudSat’s radar performed flawlessly, and although the data are still very preliminary, it provided breathtaking new views of the weather on our planet,” said Graeme Stephens, CloudSat principal investigator and a professor at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo. "All major cloud system types were observed, and the radar demonstrated its ability to penetrate through almost all but the heaviest rainfall.

“We have now begun continuous radar operations, and we look forward to releasing our first validated data to the science community within nine months, hopefully sooner,” Stephens said.

Just 30 seconds after radar activation, CloudSat obtained its first image - a slice of the atmosphere from the top to the surface of a warm storm front over the North Sea in the North Atlantic approaching Greenland. Unlike other satellite observations, the CloudSat radar image shows the storm’s clouds and precipitation simultaneously. The front’s warm air can be seen rising over colder air, with precipitation below.

The remaining orbits of the test recorded unique observations of other weather types on a scale never seen before. The radar obtained first-time observations of clouds and snow storms over the Antarctic. Until now, clouds have been hard to observe in polar regions using satellite remote sensing, particularly during the polar night season. The CloudSat observations also provided new views of sloping, frontal clouds and thunderstorms over Africa, both as individual storms and as part of larger tropical storm systems.

“We’re seeing the atmosphere as we’ve never seen it before,” said Deborah Vane, CloudSat deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. “We’re no longer looking at clouds like images on a flat piece of paper, but instead we’re peering into the clouds and seeing their layered complexity.”

The first-ever millimeter wavelength radar, CloudSat’s Cloud-Profiling Radar is more than 1,000 times more sensitive than typical weather radar. It can observe clouds and precipitation in a way never before possible, distinguishing between cloud particles and precipitation. Its measurements are expected to offer new insights into how fresh water is created from water vapor and how much of this water falls to the surface as rain and snow.

CloudSat was launched April 28 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., along with NASA’s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations satellite. Both satellites will orbit 438 miles above Earth aboard NASA’s “A-Train” constellation of five Earth Observing System satellites. The A-Train satellites will work together to provide new insights into the global distribution and evolution of clouds to improve weather forecasting and climate prediction.

CloudSat is managed by JPL, which developed the radar instrument with hardware contributions from the Canadian Space Agency. Colorado State University provides scientific leadership and science data processing and distribution. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo., designed and built the spacecraft. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Department of Energy contributed resources. U.S. and international universities and research centers support the mission science team.

For more information on CloudSat on the Web, visit:

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Erica Hupp/Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington

Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Emily Wilmsen
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.


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