Earth has only one natural satellite, the Moon. However, this week in honour of Earth Day I scrolled across an animation of the man-made NASA operated satellites that are currently orbiting around the Earth. At present, NASA has a fleet of 18 satellites above us, including of course, the International Space Station. I have to admit, I was a bit mesmerised, so I thought I could look a bit more into what some of these satellites are called and what they do.
CYGNSS – standing for Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, this mission consists of eight separate satellites that orbit around the tropical areas of the globe. These tiny satellites collect data relating the wind speeds to predict size and direction of hurricanes as they develop.
CALIPSO – A bit of a mouthful, CALIPSO stands for Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (got that?). The main job of this satellite is to sit back and watch the clouds float by. The CALIPSO uses visible and infrared light to collect data about clouds and aerosols floating above our Earth and this information is used to gain a greater understanding about climate systems.
DSCOVR – Whilst the other satellites look inwards towards Earth for information, the Deep Space Climate Observatory looks outwards, detecting solar winds and giving us warnings when geothermal storms are imminent. As foreboding as that sounds, geothermal storms are more likely to harm your phone that yourself. Large surges of solar energy can cause disruptions to telecommunications such as GPS. The DSCOVR gives us about an hours heads-up for when this is going to happen.
Grace – The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. Grace is actually a set of seventeen year old twin satellites. Grace looks at the Earth’s gravitational field and in doing so can investigate large sources of water. GRACE is also half European (a collaboration with the German Space Agency). Her full name ‘GRACE Tellus’ is a nod to the Roman Earth Goddess, Tellus.
Jason – Now that you’ve met Grace, you must meet Jason. Jason is actually a number of missions focusing on the ocean. Jason can provide information for oceanographers but perhaps most importantly, the mission provides us with information about sea level rises. Jason is used to gather information to help us better understand climate change.
The Soil Moisture Active Passive (or its equally sexy sounding acronym SMAP) is also useful in giving us climate change information. SMAP looks at water distribution and how it will affect humans. In particular, droughts and floods and how they will affect agriculture.
Suomi NPP – The Suomi NPP is like the latest iPhone model of Earth-observing satellites and will be the one to give us the vital long term data on Earth’s dynamics. Be it atmospheric, oceanic or terrestrial, this group of satellites will work to gain a whole world perspective into these areas. Suomi NPP captures stunning photos of smoke from bushfires and has photographed many in Australia.
Although it may be disconcerting, the thought of several satellites circling above us collecting all the information they can, do not fear! It appears that these spacecrafts are much more interested in dust and water and clouds than anything we are doing. Happy Earth Day!