Prediction Is the Best Protection
Raytheon's spacefaring exec puts the “advance” in Advanced Weather Forecasting
From low earth orbit, Robert Curbeam looked down on the Pacific Ocean during his first space voyage in August, 1997. What he saw was both beautiful and chilling.
“At first, all I could think was how beautiful it was,” Curbeam said. But as Super Typhoon Winnie rolled into view, spanning 300-400 miles of the southern Pacific Ocean, his sense of wonder veered toward dread.
“I remember thinking, ‘What must they be dealing with down there?’”
As a former NASA astronaut and three-time crew member on the Space Shuttle Discovery, Curbeam is among the few people who’ve directly observed devastating weather from space. During that 1997 mission, the Discovery crew sent pictures to weather analysts around the clock to help avert the worst, but Winnie still left hundreds dead and caused billions in damage.
Today Curbeam is vice president and deputy of Space Systems for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, which produces technologies that serve the global need for uninterrupted, high-fidelity weather data.
“It all comes down to accurate predictions,” said Curbeam. Robust prediction is vital not just for storm preparedness, but for weather affecting everyday life — drought patterns, flash flood zones, rough seas, rainfall and cloud cover, he said. That information is critical for farmers, transportation companies, commercial aviation and military operations.
“The more satellites we have, the more robust the information we can develop," Curbeam said. "More observations in rapid succession means greater storm track fidelity and more accurate long-term weather forecasting.”
Curbeam’s perspective helps provide guidance to his team for Raytheon’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) program, a key part of NOAA’s current polar satellite program, which includes Suomi-NPP (now in orbit), the Joint Polar Satellite System 1 and 2 spacecraft slated for launch over the next few years, and the next generation Polar Follow-On satellites.
The demand for accurate weather information underscores the need to commence NOAA’s Polar Follow-on program without delay, Curbeam said. To avoid a possible “information gap,” replacement PFO satellites and sensors need to begin production now to be ready when the JPSS-1 and 2 spacecraft are retired.
“The sooner you address any potential problem, the better the solution tends to be and the lower the cost — not just in dollars, but in time and effort spent, and opportunities missed,” he said.
Severe weather disrupts delivery of utilities, transportation routes, internet connections, food crop availability and so much more. The ripple effects on business operations, on people’s livelihoods — and ultimately on local, national and global economies — become staggeringly apparent, Curbeam said.
“That whole chain of effects can be drastically improved through early warning. There’s no question that the nation’s polar satellite fleet, including the Polar Follow-On, is indispensable to maintaining unbroken continuity of high-fidelity satellite weather data,” he said. “It’s the key to global, life-saving, long-range weather prediction capability.”
Polar orbiting satellites provide images with far greater detail than other weather platforms. Even at night, the Day-Night Band of Raytheon’s VIIRS sensor delivers unparalleled image clarity. And because they cover the entire globe, polar satellites can characterize emerging storm patterns long before they pose a threat to populations.
“Putting the ‘advance’ in ‘advanced weather forecasting’ means having superior information early enough to make a huge difference to the people in the areas that will be affected,” Curbeam said. “VIIRS’ advanced technology equals better predictions — enabling better preparation, better emergency response and better recovery in the aftermath. That’s possible only if you have advanced weather data in advance.”