A new weather satellite slated to be launched Thursday in Japan will take unprecedented three-dimensional views of rainstorms and hurricanes. It also will capture — for the first time by a satellite — views of falling snow.
"Just like a doctor uses CAT scans and X-rays to diagnose what is happening in the human body, this satellite uses its measurements to diagnose the internal structures of precipitation," said Dalia Kirschbaum, research physical scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Launch is scheduled for a one-hour window that opens at 1:37 p.m. ET Thursday from Tanegashima Island, a tiny island off the southern coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four big islands.
Known as the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, it is an international effort led by NASA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) "to measure rain and snowfall over most of the Earth several times a day."
The satellite will be used for long-term climate research and live weather forecasting, said Gail Skofronick-Jackson, GPM project scientist with NASA. "It will set a new standard for precipitation measurements from space."
The cost of the mission to NASA is $933 million.
The GPM will work with an international fleet of satellites to tally rainfall every three hours. It will give scientists a new look into clouds and storms and improve predictions of droughts, floods, landslides and other natural disasters.
"It should be in use by the middle of spring," Jackson said, "well in time for the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season."
The GPM is built upon the success of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), Jackson said, a satellite launched in 1997 that measures moderate and heavy rainfall in the tropics.
"The GPM mission will help advance our understanding of Earth's water and energy cycles, improve the forecasting of extreme events that cause natural disasters, and extend current capabilities of using satellite precipitation information to directly benefit society," NASA said in a news release.
The satellite was built at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. One of the main instruments aboard the satellite, the "microwave imager," was built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies of Boulder, Colo.
"Whether it's raining or snowing – we all want to know when, where and how much," according to Kirschbaum. "Especially after a winter that has brought snowstorms that have wreaked havoc up and down the East Coast and the South; and in California, where the lack of rain and snow is leading to historic droughts."