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October 27, 2011

UMBC Researchers Develop Sensor for Satellite Climate Change Measurements

Contacts: Nicole Ruediger, Communications Manager
Phone: 410-455-5791

After 10 years of research and several million dollars, UMBC physics research professor, Larrabee Strow is about to finally see his work pay off. Strow and his research team helped develop the Cross-Track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), satellite sensor hardware and software. CrIS is aboard a satellite scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on October 28. This is the first new technology used in NOAA's weather satellites since the mid-1970's. The sensor will give the average person a better 2 to 5 day weather forecast. This is something, Strow says, that is important for both weather predictions and measuring climate change. "This kind of refined measurement" says Strow, "is absolutely essential for forecasting hurricane paths, large storm tracks and so on."

CrIS is a type of sensor called a hyperspectral sounder because it divides the Earth's infrared spectrum into thousands of individual colors, "similar to how a prism separates the colors of sunlight", says Strow. The sensor will measure the Earth's atmospheric temperature and humidity, cloud properties, carbon dioxide amounts, surface temperature and methane.

The existing NOAA sensor, currently in orbit, measures the Earth's infrared radiance in only 19 broad wavelengths, providing less precise and accurate measurements than those made by CrIS. The new sensor will measure the Earth’s infrared radiance using shorter wavelengths, and CrIS temperature readings will hopefully be stable to better than 1/100 of a degree, says Strow.

Strow and his team at UMBC developed methods to precisely calibrate CrIS' 1305 different wavelengths, both on the ground, and once CrIS is in operation in space. Strow and his team simulated the in-orbit measurements of CrIS in the lab by measuring the absorption of infrared light in gas cells containing carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen bromide. Those measurements also helped verify that the the instrument was performing properly and ready for launch.

Not only will the technology give the average person a better idea of what weather the day might bring -- it has significant implications for farmers, who rely heavily on weather forecasts for bringing in crops, like hay. "You need to have at least three days of clear, sunny weather to cut, dry, bale and move your hay,” Strow says. “If you make a mistake you lose your crop and the commercial farmer loses a lot of money."

The CrIS technology also has applications for studying climate change. Because of the precision with which the sensor collects data it allows researchers, using this version of CrIS along with copies of it slated for future satellites, to refine the global climate record. "To study climate change you have to have a good long-term observing system," says Strow. "It's unlike most science investigations. You can't redo the experiment, you only get one chance."

This work was done using UMBC's High Performance Computing Center

Posted by nruedige at October 27, 2011 2:50 PM