By Warren Ferster

3D winds

Depiction of 3D winds data collected via satellite. Credit: NASA

 COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – U.S. weather forecasting officials are eager to incorporate new satellite data sets into their ever-evolving prediction models, and 3D atmospheric wind measurements are high on the priority list.

The ability to directly detect precise global 3D winds throughout the atmosphere from space has been a “holy grail” of sorts for atmospheric scientists for years, said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for satellite and information services at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation’s weather agency. This information will help scientists better understand the dynamics of the atmosphere, which is critical to weather forecasting.

But measuring wind from space is notoriously challenging, according to acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs, who along with Volz met with reporters here April 10 after a panel discussion on agency activities at the 35th Space Symposium. “We can do it from the surface of the ocean, we can do it from cloud tops, but in clear air, it’s really, really hard,” he said, adding that 3D wind represents a “huge data gap” for weather forecasters.

NOAA operates sophisticated weather-monitoring satellites in geostationary and polar orbits, but relies on research agencies, including NASA and international partners, for measurements that are still considered experimental. These include 3D winds, which can be detected using a certain type of light detection and ranging, or Lidar, sensor.

“We do not have a budget in NOAA for developing and deploying research missions, but we are looking very actively to exploit research missions for NOAA operational applications,” Volz said.

Volz noted that 3D wind was singled out as a priority “of high benefit to NOAA” in the U.S. National Research Council’s most recent Earth science decadal survey, which came out in January 2018. These independent decadal surveys are used to set NASA’s priorities in Earth, space and planetary science. However, a flight mission was not selected at that time.

In the near term, NOAA is working with the European Space Agency to leverage data from the latter’s Aeolus mission, which launched in August on a three-year mission to collect global wind data using a Lidar sensor. Another strong possibility for future research missions is with NASA, which for years has been experimenting with Lidar sensors for a variety of applications, including wind detection.

Ball Aerospace has long been a close working partner with NASA on Lidar sensor development. On the joint NASA-French Space Agency CALIPSO mission, for example, Ball was responsible for the main sensor, the communications equipment and payload integration. CALIPSO launched in 2006 and is still collecting 3D measurements of clouds and atmospheric aerosols to better understand key elements of atmospheric dynamics.

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