“A marvellous development” – Nimbus and ESSA satellites

NASA was involved in the U.S MetSat programme since the 1960s, by largely building the world’s first meteorological satellite TIROS-I, a project that  was transferred from ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), to the newly formed civilian space administration. TIROS, the first satellite to include television and infrared sensor systems as well as a ground station, a command control system and a data acquisition system, was put in orbit from Cape Canaveral on 1st April, 1960 by a Thor-Able launch vehicle and immediately start sending the first pictures to Earth.

This is a  “marvellous development”,  said President Eisenhower, when he saw the first pictures sent by TIROS-1, only seven hours after the launch, while Senator Lyndon B. Johnson stated that TIROS was the “best space news we have had in a long time, ….. a tremendous step toward peace”. The pictures were of low quality by today’s standards, and they were showing only land masses and cloud formations, but they were valuable to meteorologists, as for the first time they could see images of entire weather systems. Nine subsequent TIROS satellites followed the first one, sending a total of 649,077 pictures to earth from 1st April, 1960 to 1st July 1st, 1965.

As NASA’s scope moved towards a broader involvement in earthly applications, the agency, in cooperation with the Weather Bureau, submitted a proposal to develop another advanced meteorological satellite called NIMBUS (the Latin word for rain cloud). On May 1961, President Kennedy, a strong advocate for a satellite system for world-wide weather observation, requested from the Congress 75 million dollars- of which 53 was for the Weather Bureau- for the development of the NIMBUS satellite system and an operational system to control and organise the data coming from the satellites. In January 1962, an agreement was signed between NASA and the Weather Bureau that defined the duties of each agency. NASA would be responsible for managing R&D, while the Weather Bureau, the managing agency of NIMBUS project, would be responsible for the operational system and for organising the data received from the satellites.

It didn’t take a lot of time for disagreements between the two agencies to arise. Most of them were about the location of the Control and Data Acquisition Station, but also about the orbital altitude of the satellite. Not able to overcome the personalities clashes and the disagreements on technical issues, the Weather Bureau withdrew from the Nimbus project. NASA could no longer manage the operational aspect of the project and for the next few years kept NIMBUS solely as an experimental R&D project.

NIMBUS was launched in sun-synchronous orbit. It could provide daylight and night-time pictures of intense hurricane clouds viewed from space. The images transmitted by NIMBUS-1, when it finally launched in August 1964, were of high value to meteorologists and other scientists as they allowed them to create maps of the entire Earth.

The NIMBUS Medium Resolution Infrared Radiometer (MRIR) which measured the intensity and distribution of electromagnetic radiation emitted by and reflected from the earth allowed scientists to study the absorbed solar radiation, aldedo, and net radiation flux. The scientists  could  also obtain temperatures of sea and land surfaces and as Nimbus satellites crossed the polar regions, to monitor the temperatures of snow and ice surfaces.

ESSA satellite – NASA “SP-168 EXPLORING SPACE WITH A CAMERA” – http://history.nasa.gov/SP-168/appendix.htm

Dedicated to its mission to R&D, NASA continued to develop new instrumentation to observe the Earth, such as the Environmental Survey Satellite (ESSA), a more advanced system, that had the capability to observe Earth’s cloud cover and weather patterns from space. ESSA was initiated as an extension of the TIROS Program and it would be managed by the new Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA) which had been created on July 13, 1965. ESSA’s mission was to unify and organise a global weather satellite system, as well as to control all federal environmental and geodetic activities. Its focus was to “enable scientists to investigate the physical environment as a ‘scientific whole’ rather than a “collection of separate and distinct fields of scientific interest”. 

Unlike NIMBUS, ESSA satellites had no instruments to create night-time images. It was circuited in a sun-synchronous orbit and could provide daily global coverage.[9] Its axes were always directed towards the Earth and its imagery was of a much wider scope, and better resolution than TIROS-9.

The images transmitted by ESSA were used for the first weather satellite data exchange programme between the U.S and the Soviet Union in 1966. Despite the hostilities, the scientists of these two countries, had  managed to  found a common ground of interest that later, in 1972, led to cooperation and the formation of a working group in polar research, climate modelling and monitoring of the atmospheric constituents having an impact on  climate. In October, 1970, ESSA was integrated into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

  1. NASA, “TIROS, The system and its evolution” , Memorandum, (2 August 1965):9, [http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19650020963_1965020963.pdf] Available from NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS)
  2. Hill Janice,“The weather from above: America’s Meteorological Satellites” Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
  3. John F. Kennedy, “Special  Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs”, Delivered in person before a joint session of Congress May 25, 1961, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=8151
  4. Gary Davis, “History of the NOAA satellite program” Journal of Applied Remote Sensing, Vol. 1, 012504 (25 January 2007):3
  5. W. Widger, Jr., ‘Meteorological satellites’, New York; Holt. Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966, pp153-157
  6. W. Nordberg,Geophysical Observations from Nimbus I’, Science, New Series, Vol. 150, No. 3696. (Oct. 29, 1965), pp. 560-568.
  7. NOAA History http://www.history.noaa.gov/legacy/noaahistory_4.html
  8. Eugene W. Bierly & John A. Mirabito, “The US-USSR Agreement on Protection of the Environment and its relationship to the US National Climate Prorgam” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 65(1) (January 1984): 16-18.