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.