Science & Technology

Space Dynamics Lab has GIFTS for the Weather in the Works

Space Dynamics Lab has GIFTS for the Weather in the Works

From the The Hard News Cafe 02/25/04

To many people, gifts are things you give or receive on special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries or at Christmas time. To some local engineers, GIFTS means a lot more than that.

The Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) is working in connection with NASA to design a futuristic weather satellite that may be able to accurately predict the weather.

The satellite is nicknamed GIFTS, which stands for Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer. That is a satellite which orbits the Earth in such a manner that it is always above the same spot on the Earth. The satellite will be equipped with an instrument which will be able to measure the temperature, water vapor and other components of the atmosphere making weather predictions more accurate and providing a better early warning system against storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes.

SDL engineer Glen Hansen said this technology "will allow us to tell when a tornado will hit before the clouds even form."

SDL is mainly responsible for developing the instrument that will measure the weather changes and integrating all of the sub-systems that are being developed by other groups who are working in partnership on this project.

The instrument will scan the surface of the Earth, from near the North Pole to near the South Pole, every 15 minutes and compare the current pictures with the previous pictures to see what is changing in the upper atmosphere and how that will affect future weather patterns.

Most meteorological satellites are orbiting the Earth at a relatively low height. USU Physics Professor John Raitt says they are normally about 200 miles above the Earth's surface. This means they can't monitor a region long enough to see weather patterns form. With the new satellite orbiting the Earth at nearly 22,000 miles it will allow meteorologists to study how weather patterns form and to more accurately predict how those changes will affect our daily weather.

SDL has been working on this project since 1999 when the idea behind the system was being dreamed up as Hurricane Floyd was about to strike the East Coast. But its $105 million price tag is well justified, says Hansen.

"With Floyd, they spent millions of dollars evacuating Florida residents and the hurricane didn't even hit there," Hansen said. "This instrument will allow us to see in real time where the hurricane will go and where it will hit."

With President Bush's new dream to return to the moon and eventually land a man on Mars, NASA is expected to cut programs allowing them to allocate $11 billion over the next few years. However, Hansen said he feels this program will not be cut.

According to Steven Brown, SDL engineer, the satellite being designed by SDL is a prototype designed test the theories behind the satellite, and will not be used for long-term measuring. He said the instruments are designed to work for a relatively short time, and then the satellite will become obsolete.

"It is more of a test for future use. To see if this technology is something we can use to benefit the future of weather forecasting," Brown said.

When asked about the high price tag for a prototype satellite Hansen said, "Everyone who has seen the project, or has been told of what it will be able to do has said that the results and the benefits we will produce will far outweigh the costs."

The satellite relies highly on infrared optical spectrometers (a spectrometer is an instrument used to measure light waves in a given spectrum). Brown said the pictures that will come back from the satellite "will be just like the infrared pictures they show on the nightly news, only about a thousand times better."

The launch date for the satellite is still unknown. According to Hansen they are still "waiting for a ride" after the Columbia explosion has depleted NASA's supply of space craft. The satellite's final destination is still somewhat unknown. 

Brown said that it will be pointed over the East Coast (probably during hurricane season), and it will be pointed over the West Coast, but in what order and after those two sites are explored it is still undecided where the final destination will be.

If the satellite performs as it is believed to perform, they will probably be used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to replace current weather satellites. 

By Chris Calvert

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