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Monitoring the Hydrologic Cycle With the PATH Mission

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6 Author(s)
Lambrigtsen, B. ; Jet Propulsion Lab., California Inst. of Technol., Pasadena, CA, USA ; Brown, S.T. ; Gaier, T.C. ; Herrell, L.
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The Precipitation and All-weather Temperature and Humidity (PATH) mission is one of the NASA missions recommended by the NRC in its recent Earth Science “Decadal Survey.” The focus of this mission is on the hydrologic cycle in the atmosphere, with applications from weather forecasting to climate research. PATH will deploy a microwave sounder, a passive radiometer that measures upwelling thermal radiation, in geostationary orbit and will for the first time provide a time-continuous view of atmospheric temperature and all three phases of water under nearly all weather conditions. This is possible because microwave radiation is sensitive to but also penetrates both clouds and precipitation, as has been demonstrated with similar sensors on low-earth-orbiting satellites. Data from those sensors, despite observing a particular location only twice a day, have had more impact on weather prediction accuracy than any other type of satellite sensor, and it is expected that PATH will have a similar impact with its ability to continuously observe the entire life cycle of storm systems. Such sensors have also played an important role in climate research and have been used to estimate long-term temperature trends in the atmosphere. An important application of PATH data will be to improve the representation of cloud formation, convection, and precipitation in weather and climate models, particularly the diurnal variation in those processes. In addition to measuring the three-dimensional distribution of temperature, water vapor, cloud liquid water, and ice, PATH also measures sea surface temperature under full cloud cover. Such observations make a number of important applications possible. Depending on the application focus and the geostationary orbit location, PATH can serve as anything from a hurricane and severe-storm observatory to an El Niño observatory. A geostationary orbit offers many advantages, as has been demonstrated with visible and infrared imag- - ers and sounders deployed on weather satellites, but those sensors cannot penetrate clouds. It has not been possible until now to build a microwave radiometer with a large enough antenna aperture to attain a reasonable spatial resolution from a GEO orbit. A new approach, using aperture synthesis, has recently been developed by NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and that is what makes PATH possible. Key technology enabling the large array of receivers in such a system has been developed, and a proof-of-concept demonstrator was completed in 2006. The state of the art in this area is now such that PATH mission development could start in 2010 and be ready for launch in 2015, but the actual schedule depends on the availability of funding. An option to fly PATH as a joint NASA-NOAA mission is being explored.

Published in:

Proceedings of the IEEE  (Volume:98 ,  Issue: 5 )

Date of Publication:

May 2010

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