Where there's smoke

This space-based tech spots wildfires early to help save lives

Five hundred miles above Earth, there is technology that can detect wildfires, pinpoint their locations and alert emergency responders so they can react more quickly.

Raytheon Technologies' Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS, is part of two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites: Suomi-National Polar-orbiting Partnership, which launched in 2011, and NOAA-20, part of the Joint Polar Satellite System, which launched in 2017.

From their perch in space, these instruments capture data that helps firefighters see smoke and locate fire hot spots. Today, government agencies around the world, like U.S. National Forest Service and Geoscience Australia, use VIIRS’s open-source data to actively monitor wildfires.

“Since we have two VIIRS instruments on orbit, you get one observation where you would see the fire, and then 50 minutes later, you get another observation,” said Shawn Cochran, senior manager for civil and environmental space at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a business of Raytheon Technologies. “Now you can get a sense of how the fire is moving and where to put resources to stop it.”

In Australia, where seasonal bush fires destroyed millions of acres in 2019 and 2020, monitoring the landscape is especially important. To help emergency services control the fires, the government has created an interactive online map called Sentinel Hotspots. The mapping tool uses data from VIIRS to provide firefighters and the public with near-real-time information of active fires.

VIIRS instruments use sensors to capture light in 22 bands, from visible to infrared, and then process the data to convert it to images. The instruments detect fire hot spots by using a moderate resolution band that looks at heat signatures coming from the ground.

Thermal emissions are geolocated to provide first responders with the exact location of the fires. The instruments can also keep an eye on where smoke is traveling. Smoke plumes, ash and particulate from fires can cause eye and respiratory problems – and they can’t always be seen with the naked eye.

“VIIRS actually maps the smoke. It helps scientists and government agencies whose air quality might be impacted from a forest fire raging hundreds of miles away,” said Cochran.

NOAA Photo of Australian Wildfires Taken by VIIRS

Plumes of smoke from brush fires spread across northern Australia. This image was captured by VIIRS aboard NOAA-20 on July 18, 2019. (NOAA photo)

VIIRS builds on technology pioneered by its predecessor, called MODIS, or Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer. MODIS also performs a basic form of fire detection from NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites, launched in 1999 and 2001 – and continues to provide useful data 20 years after launch.  

NOAA and NASA plan to launch three more VIIRS instruments in the coming years.

Combined, MODIS and VIIRS have been in orbit for close to 46 years, delivering valuable imagery and data to government and educational institutions.

In addition to its ability to track wildfires, the instrument generates critical information about emerging storms and environmental data, including snow and ice cover, algal blooms and nighttime phenomena.

JPSS is the U.S.'s advanced series of polar-orbiting environmental satellites for severe weather prediction and environmental monitoring. Its data is critical to providing timely and accurate forecasts, three to seven days in advance of a severe weather event. JPSS is a collaborative effort between NOAA and NASA.