This week, we celebrate fiftieth anniversary of the world’s first successful weather satellite launch. NASA used a Thor Able rocket to launch TIROS-1 (Television Infrared Observation Satellite), from Cape Canaveral, Fl., on April 1, 1960, at 6:40 a.m., EST. The satellite sent the first TV images to the Earth from space, changing forever the way meteorologists predicted the weather.
Though the term “satellite” may conjure up images of a complicated piece of space age wizardly, TIROS-1 was made from a simple aluminum and stainless steel drum. It measured only 42 inches across and 19 inches high, and weighed 270 pounds. It contained two TV cameras, which sent images back to the ground station at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and was powered by 9,200 solar cells mounted on the outside of the drum. Five antennas were needed to communicate with the ground station, one to receive control signals from the ground, and another four to transmit images back to Earth.
The first pictures it transmitted showed the Atlantic Coast, from New England to the Canadian Maritime Provinces. The images clearly showed cloud patterns forming and moving through the Earth’s atmosphere, proving the theory that satellites could survey the weather from space.
TIROS-1 functioned for only 78 days — it had been designed to remain operational for 93 days — and could only operate during daylight hours. In that time, though, it sent thousands of useful pictures.
Over the following five years, NASA continued to launch successive TIROS weather satellites — ten in all — into orbit. Though none of them remain functional, nine out of the 10 TIROS series satellites are still in orbit today.
One weather satellite model was launched more than a year earlier than TIROS-1. The Vanguard 2, was sent into orbit on February 17, 1959, but unlike TIROS-1, it failed to collect much usable weather data.
Today, weather satellites are one of the primary ways meteorologists predict the weather. Satellite images from space are the source of those moving cloud animations you see on televised weather reports. We’ve come a long way since TIROS-1, though. Today’s weather satellites are designed to last for many years, and use special instruments, instead of TV cameras, to record infrared, microwave or other kinds of radiation. This more sophisticated technology allows them to operate around the clock, and to transmit more accurate information than TIROS could.