How a polar satellite sees the world

Raytheon Technologies powers new US weather forecast satellite

More weather data builds smarter forecasts.

The launch of the NOAA-20 satellite means access to some of the most-accurate, highest-fidelity, near-real-time weather data in the world. NOAA-20 joined the satellite Suomi-NPP, its predecessor, in a sun-synchronous polar orbit that will cross the Earth’s surface twice a day. Plans are already under way for the next polar satellite, JPSS-2.

“Our forecasting ability has dramatically improved over the last decade and polar satellites deserve most of the credit," said Mark Sargent, Raytheon Technologies’ program director for the Joint Polar Satellite System Common Ground System, or JPSS CGS. "And it’s about to get better.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 85 percent of the data flowing into American weather forecast models comes from “polar orbiters,” providing the public with improved long-range forecasting up to seven days out.

2.0 AND GO!

JPSS CGS is a global system of ground antennas and high-performance computers that process more than 11 terabytes of weather information every day. In August 2017, the next-gen JPSS CGS 2.0 began supporting all JPSS satellites currently in the constellation, while making room for additional missions in the future.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA completed a critical design review of Raytheon Technologies’ JPSS Common Ground System program for JPSS-2, which is scheduled for launch in 2021. The review confirmed the JPSS CGS’s design will be compatible with the new satellite platform.

The upgraded system’s flexible architecture and consolidated infrastructure drive fresher observations from outer space to meteorologists, scientists and emergency officials more quickly and reliably than ever before.

“The initial capture of the polar satellite data happens at the North and South poles before we process it and push it out to the forecasters and science community,” Sargent said. “With the addition of NOAA-20, we’re be able to deliver more observations to the National Weather Service almost twice as fast.”

Critical to the global system are ground terminals located at McMurdo Station, Antarctica; Queen Maud Land, Antarctica; Svalbard, Norway; Fairbanks, Alaska; and White Sands, New Mexico. They will decrease data latency by providing multiple sites for constellation data downlinks.

VIIRS Shakedown

Following testing in the thermal vacuum chamber, a Raytheon Technologies engineer inspects the third VIIRS instrument on Nov. 6, 2017. (Photo by Reuben Wu)


Launched in 2011, the Suomi-NPP satellite was the first into space with Raytheon Technologies’ Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite of sensors. VIIRS, which is mission-critical hardware for NOAA-20 as well, provides an unprecedented level of detail and has already helped to make weather forecasts more precise. 

“We have a hot production line for VIIRS,” said Wallis Laughrey, vice president of Space Systems for Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business. “Our third VIIRS instrument slated for JPSS-2 … is now ready to go when our customer is ready.”

The only satellite sensor in the world that can track weather both day and night, it collects imagery in 22 bands of light—from visible to infrared—allowing scientists to observe emerging weather and climate patterns in unprecedented detail, a capability that’s particularly important to military operations.


When it comes to forecasting, successful missions translate to every industry.

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston, Texas, in August 2017, it was the costliest storm in U.S. history. Damage estimates ran in the hundreds of billions of dollars. One of the major issues: the city’s overall floodplain design.

“We don’t often think about the importance of weather data when it comes to updating an aging infrastructure, but we should,” said Mike Fox, former lead for civil space and weather programs. “While infrastructure bolsters safety and growing economies, extreme weather tests it to its very limits.”

Hurricanes, wildfires, mudslides, blizzards and volcanic eruptions are visible from space.

“We have access to this incredible, one-of-a-kind weather data,” said Fox. “We should use it in our city planning to reduce the chances of neighborhoods being inundated with floodwater.”

Or wildfires. In October 2017, more than 100,000 acres in California were consumed by fire, destroying countless homes and killing nearly a dozen people. The unfolding catastrophe was monitored from space, directly informing evacuation and rescue efforts.

“Every day, thousands of decisions…depend on accurate weather forecasting,” said Matt Gilligan, RI&S vice president of Navigation and Environmental Solutions. “Weather intelligence is actionable. It can literally save lives.”