NPP satellite liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force base (NASA)

The NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite, roughly the size of mini-van, will orbit at an altitude of 512 miles above the Earth’s surface. NPP will fly in a polar orbit, circling the earth from the north pole to the south pole 14 times each day.

The data it beams back to Earth, from five instruments, will help improve understanding of both global change and weather prediction.

Video of NPP launch from Vandenberg Air Force base

NPP is technically a NASA mission, but NOAA will feed the data into weather prediction models and generate more than 30 products for monitoring different components of the Earth system. NOAA also funded NPP’s instruments and is providing operational support for the mission

Data from polar-orbiting satellites is important for the accuracy of weather models, and NOAA claims such data were important to the accuracy of forecasts for major East Coast snowstorms in 2009 and 2010, including Snowmaggedon.

“Along with the skill of our meteorologists, polar-orbiting satellites, like NPP, are critical to the success of our forecasts three days and beyond,” said Jack Hayes, assistant administrator of NOAA’s National Weather Service.

Initially scheduled to launch in 2006, the $1.5 billion NPP mission encountered significant delays. Now that it’s in orbit, its estimated lifespan is five years.

NPP is designed to act as a bridge between the current generation of earth observing satellites and NOAA’s planned Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), potentially jeopardized by Congressional budget cuts following years of program delays and cost overruns.

USA Today’s Doyle Rice reported Thursday JPSS will launch in 2017 at the earliest, likely resulting in a gap in satellite coverage:

“It is now a near certainty that an unprecedented observational data gap will occur” between the end of the new satellite’s operational life and when the new breed of orbiters begins operations, says John Ewald, NOAA spokesman.

The fear is that this gap will degrade the quality of weather forecasts.

Watch this excellent overview on NPP and NOAA satellites...

Related links:

NASA preparing for Earth-observing satellite launch

NASA NPP website

NOAA fact sheet: NPP: Improving U.S. Weather forecast accuracy from space

Article and Video: Baltimore meteorologist Justin Berk interviews astronaut Pier Seller about NPP mission