Fifty years ago, NASA launched the first of seven satellites that revolutionized how we study weather, the atmosphere, and other Earth systems. Named with the Latin word for “rain cloud,” Nimbus satellites were launched over a 14-year period from 1964 to 1978. Those early Earth-observing missions pioneered the instruments, hardware, and science goals that can be traced directly to the modern fleet of NASA spacecraft studying our planet.
Launched on August 28, 1964, Nimbus 1 sent back more than 27,000 images before its solar-power systems failed on September 22, 1964. It was the first NASA satellite to provide both daytime and nighttime images of hurricanes. Later satellites in the series carried ever more sophisticated tools into space to improve long-term weather forecasting and to develop the first global data sets on the ozone layer, oceanic plankton, and the temperatures at different layers of the atmosphere. They were also the first satellites to use solar panels that tracked the Sun.
The image at the top of this page shows Hurricane Gladys over the North Atlantic Ocean on September 18, 1964. The infrared image was acquired by the High-Resolution Infrared Radiometer on Nimbus 1, an instrument designed to map Earth’s cloud cover at night (television-style images were sent by day) and to measure the temperature of cloud tops. In the film negative above, cloud tops are dark—colder in the infrared—and ocean surfaces are brighter (warmer). The storm was roughly 725 kilometers (450 miles) in diameter at the time. The satellite tracked the storm system, which never made landfall, for 12 days that September.
The second, natural-color image was acquired on October 10, 2014, by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on NASA’s Terra satellite. It shows Super Typhoon Vongfong moving across the Western Pacific Ocean toward Japan. The resolution of the MODIS instrument (launched in 1999) is 250 meters (0.15 miles) per pixel. The resolution of the Nimbus 1 image is equivalent to 10 miles per pixel.
“Nimbus is the granddaddy of the current Earth-observing fleet,” said Piers Sellers, deputy director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “When you look at all the incredible science we are doing from Earth orbit right now, you can trace it back to Nimbus. By any measure—scientific, engineering, operational, economic, human—the program was a smashing success and a huge return on investment.”
Researchers from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and NASA Goddard recently tracked down Nimbus images in a storage facilities in Maryland and North Carolina, re-opening that historic archive to modern science. Scientists and students scanned and digitized negatives from hundreds of 35-millimeter film reels, making more than 250,000 Nimbus images available to the public.
Read more about the legacy of Nimbus and of the data digitizing project by clicking on the references below.
Nimbus image courtesy of NSIDC/CIRES Nimbus Data Rescue Project. Terra-MODIS image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Kasha Patel, NASA GSFC, and Mike Carlowicz.