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Weather Satellites

A Summary of NASA Missions to Study Hurricanes and Severe Storms from Space


NASA Weather Satellites - QuikSCAT

NASA Weather Satellites - QuikSCAT

So, you think satellites are just for TV? Think Again! Weather Satellites are often launched in joint mission between several government agencies including NASA, NOAA, and the Japanese Space Agency. Although many satellites assist in weather prediction, other satellite discoveries have allowed scientists to discover the inner workings of hurricanes and other severe storms.

I have put together a summary of the NASA satellites currently deployed to study weather phenomena. Each one includes a picture and details on the methods used to study precipitation, climate, hurricanes, and weather anomalies. You can also visit the weather satellite image gallery.


QuikSCAT is short for the Quick Scatterometer. This spacecraft was launched on June 19, 1999 and carries the SeaWinds instrument. This form of microwave radar measures wind speed and direction at the surface of earth actually seeing through the clouds. Scientists then compare the wind data with cloud patterns they observe. This data allows the scientists to study the winds within a hurricane and provide lead time in releasing watches and warnings for storms surges and coastal flooding. Hurricane safety is just one focus of the mission.


The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission TRMM is a joint project of NASA and the Japanese Space Agency. As the name suggests, the primary objective of the mission is to study tropical and subtropical rainfall. The satellite launched on November 27, 1997. The spacecraft contains multiple sensors and instruments including CERES (the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System) and a Lightning Imaging Sensor.

TRMM actually helps with hurricane studies as well. In addition to providing clues about storm intensity, TRMM reveals hurricane structure. Since the heaviest rain clusters around the center of a tropical cyclone, meteorologists can locate the eye of a hurricane.


Aqua is a huge mission aimed at understanding Earth's water cycle. Tested areas include evaporation from the oceans, water vapor in the atmosphere, clouds, precipitation, soil moisture, sea ice, land ice, and snow cover on the land and ice. Aqua was launched on May 4, 2002.

The Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR-E) measures sea surface temperatures which help with hurricane studies. Warm ocean waters fuel hurricanes, so measurements of sea surface temperatures are crucial to accurately predicting storm intensity. Because microwave energy passes through clouds, the sensor can record sea surface temperatures both in the hurricane’s path and directly beneath the storm. These measurements reveal the cold water wake created when hurricanes churn up a shallow layer of warm water allowing cooler, deep water to come to the surface. For a video of cold water trails, go to the hurricane videos page.


Launched on April 28, 2006, CloudSat and CALIPSO fly in close formation to provide nearly simultaneous, three-dimensional measurements of cloud structure. CloudSat is a radar 1000 times more sensitive than ground-based weather radars. The radar sends out radio waves and records their return time to determine the location of tiny particles of water and ice that make up clouds. CALIPSO uses laser light pulses to measure the location of ice, water, and aerosol particles. By plotting the location of particles, scientists get an unprecedented two-dimensional view of a cloud’s structure.

One of the questions that NASA scientists are trying to answer with data from the Aqua, CloudSat, and CALIPSO satellites is what impact warm, dry, dusty air blowing out of the Sahara Desert might have on hurricane formation in the Atlantic. (Find out more with a short tutorial on the formation of hurricanes in the Sahara.) You can also see a video of how CloudSAT “sees” through clouds.

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