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From Black-and-White to High-Def: A Space Imagery Retrospective

In 1960, the United States propelled two six-inch-long television cameras into space on a satellite called TIROS 1. Rotating slowly above Earth, the satellite beamed back still images from two-watt transmitters.

The TIROS I satellite peers down at Earth in this illustration from 1960.

It was roughly the same technology used to transmit 1950s-era TV shows, and the images it produced were black-and-white and grainy. But those photos, and the ones that followed, were a revelation. Suddenly sailors knew about hurricanes that were still far at sea. Farmers knew when rain was headed their way. No part of the planet was too remote to watch.

Since then sensors have gotten progressively better. Today's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, built by Raytheon, pours down images that scientists could only dream of in 1960. Last year it produced a night-vision view of Earth, the so-called “Black Marble” photo, as well as striking new views in 22 bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. The data is already improving weather forecasts and helping scientists keep tabs on climate events.

The sensor package rides on the Suomi NPP satellite and delivers images to the Joint Polar Satellite System Common Ground System, also built by Raytheon.

Information gathered by the sensors and ground station is used by meteorologists and government agencies to make better predictions about when and where weather systems will hit.

“The applications are countless: from aviation to transportation to agriculture, health and safety,” said William Sullivan, director of Raytheon’s common ground system program.

VIIRS' day-night band, which captures views of Earth in extremely low-light conditions, allows meteorologists to better track storms throughout the night hours. The images gave relief workers invaluable information on the extent of power outages after Hurricane Sandy hit the U.S. East Coast last year.

These new weather sensors are becoming indispensable as older earth-monitoring satellites near the end of their useful lives. In February the U.S. General Accountability Office warned of possible gaps in satellite data as early as 2014.

“It’s really important that we have this information to protect life, property and fiscal risk to the federal government,” Gene Dodaro, comptroller general and director of the office, told a news conference.

It’s a long way from the blurry images of TIROS 1. Today’s images are as crisp as a 2013 sports broadcast. And thanks to Raytheon, tomorrow’s will be even better.

Published: 11/17/2014

Last Updated: 04/23/2015

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