A new satellite carrying critical instrumentation developed in Boulder scheduled to be launched next week from Japan could give forecasters far greater future ability to predict severe weather events, according to a program manager for the project.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. developed, designed and is providing pre- and post-launch support for what it calls the Global Precipitation Measurement Microwave Imager, one of the prime instruments aboard a joint NASA-Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency mission scheduled for launch about 11 a.m. MDT on Thursday.

The project, called the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, also carries a Japanese-built Dual-Frequency Precipitation radar, which will complement the work of the Ball Aerospace GMI, a passive microwave radiometer.

The satellite will be launched from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan and fly onboard a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA launch vehicle.

Don Figgins, the GMI project manager for Ball Aerospace, leaves Sunday for Japan, where he plans to witness the scheduled launch. His role there will be primarily that of spectator.

"I'm just going to watch the launch," Figgins said Friday. "I mean, there's nothing (more) we can do at this point in time."

The GMI instrument is a conical-scan microwave radiometer with 13 channels, a 1.2-meter aperture, capable of providing a 2.7- to 19.8-mile resolution at its low-Earth orbit altitude of about 253 miles. Operating at 32 revolutions per minute, the GMI utilizes four stable calibration points to regulate its scanned data.


Figgins said the mission will represent a significant advancement of the work pioneered by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission -— which was also a joint effort of NASA and the Japanese space agency, launched in 1997. At that time, it was the first spaceborne instrument designed to provide three-dimensional maps of storm structure.

"We will advance the technology in several areas," said Figgins, who noted that the TRMM satellite only flew within 35 degrees on both sides of the Equator, while the GPM's path will take it around the Earth in 90-minute orbits ranging from the far north of Canada to the tip of South America.

"We're going to provide global coverage, and basically we'll have a data refresh, a data dump, every three hours," Figgins said. "That is going to provide detailed observations of global precipitation every three hours, with a higher resolution.

"With the expanded frequency range, we will be able to measure the smaller-size rain droplets, and we'll also be able to measure heavier amounts of rain," he said. "That would help us in terms of not only understanding the Earth's water cycle all over the globe — including over the oceans -— but it also helps improve our forecasters' ability to predict hurricanes, blizzards and droughts and landslides."

Figgins said that while scientists at NASA are excited about the mission, that anticipation is matched by their colleagues in many other countries.

"They are excited all over the world, because these scientists want to understand the water cycle better than we do we now," Figgins said. "A lot of rain falls over the ocean. We don't know how much, and we don't know how that rain moves from one location to another. As fresh water becomes more precious, it's going to be important to future generations to better understand the water cycle, and how to manage it."

The satellite's Ball Aerospace instrument, providing that the launch goes ahead Thursday as planned, should be turned on March 1, with the collection of data starting shortly thereafter. Full commissioning and calibration of all the spacecraft's instrumentation will continue over succeeding weeks.

Christopher Williams, a research scientist at the University of Colorado's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, is a member of the mission's ground validation team. He said the mission's work, in coordination with several other international satellites already in orbit, will effectively provide a fresh three-dimensional snapshot, every three hours, of all the rain and snow falling on the planet.

"Part of the flooding or landslide problems we have around the world are that they tend not to happen with the first storm, but with the second or third, as we saw here in September," Williams said. "Being able to have frequent updates of when the next storm is coming will help communities prepare."

Figgins acknowledged that extreme weather events, increasingly the focus of national and international media, may build public interest in missions such as the global precipitation measurements.

"I think the science community has always had this interest. That's why this thing went on the drawing board 15 years ago," Figgins said. "And, what we hear in the media about climate change, the volume has been turned up just in the last five years on that."

The satellite to be launched Thursday is designed for a three-and-a-half-year mission, but Figgins said it is likely to exceed that time in service.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or brennanc@dailycamera.com.