MODIS Rapid Response


“I had gotten a MODIS image from a researcher,” Stone recalls. He had been impressed with the quality and detail of the photo-like images. Compared to some kinds of satellite images, says Stone, “True color seems more like you’re looking at a photo. You can identify features easily.” While being able to identify features easily made the images easy to use, timeliness was also essential. If he were going to use satellite imagery to direct the supply ships to McMurdo, Stone needed the images immediately after they were acquired, not days later.

The MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center was ideally set up to give Stone the images he needed. Developed in 2000 to monitor wildfires across the world, the MODIS Rapid Response System posts all MODIS images of land on the Internet within hours of when MODIS acquires them. The images are free and accessible to anyone who has an Internet connection.

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  Shipping channel

Stone’s request for imagery came at a fortuitous time. The Rapid Response Team had recently started to produce daily images of selected regions that were compatible with Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping programs so that other information—like a shipping route—could be placed on top of the images. By contrast, the near-real-time global imagery the team had been distributing up until that point was not processed to the level that it could be used as the basis for a map.

“When the request came in, we thought this was a typical application we should help with,” says Jacques Descloitres, program manager of the MODIS Rapid Response System. The team started generating daily images of the Ross Sea.

Stone was delighted. “We had never had a full view of McMurdo Sound before,” he says. “Then someone set up this site that was capturing our part of the world that everyone could look at for free, and it was updated on a daily basis.” The site quickly became the first thing Stone looked at every morning.


MODIS acquires images of Antarctica on a daily basis. This MODIS image shows the McMurdo shipping channel along with other features of the icy continent. The turning basin is a wide arc cut into the surrounding ice so that icebreakers and other ships can turn around. (Photos courtesy MODIS Rapid Response)