Monday, March 29, 2010

The American Weather Satellite marks Golden Anniversary

America's first weather satellite soared into space and recorded the historic first images of planet earth fifty years ago this week.

On April 1, 1960, a Thor-Able rocket leapt from a deserted launch pad 17-A at 6:40 am EST, and into the history books from Cape Canaveral with the country's first weather eye on the sky.

The rocket climbed high at a fast rate as it carried the 270 pound cylindrical payload into earth orbit.

The Television Infrared Observation Satellite (TIROS-1) arrived into a 450 mile-high orbit hours later, and by that evening was powered up and transmitting the first images of our home planet from space.

TIROS-1 was a first of it's kind as it carried two television cameras to return nearly 23,000 grainy black and white images of cloud formations. However, it was these ghostly images which gave scientists their first visual views of how weather systems moved across the globe as they received several images at a time from it's on board recorder.

TIROS was a true test-bed for future observation satellites. It carried one wide angle and one telephoto lens to capture different views of the changing weather patterns. NOAA states that the wide angle could capture a 750-mile field of the planet.

The images were then received at two locations, Hawaii and New Jersey, and were known as Command and Data Acquisition stations.

Over the two stations, engineers would snap several images and down link the recorded images stored on a 400-foot reel of tape. Once received, the images were then placed on 35-mm film and distributed to the U.S. weather bureau near Wahington, DC.

Engineers had hoped that the drum shaped satellite would last four months, and were riding a spirit of mixed feelings when it stopped operating due to an electrical failure on June 15 after only 78 days of service.

The spacecraft had several tiny thrusters which helped maintain it's spin of around 12 rpm as it soared in low earth orbit. Without the thrusters, TRIOS' spin would be greater and the images returned to earth would have been very blurry.

The 88-foot tall white Thor DM18 Able-II rocket was made up of two stages, Thor and Able.

The Thor main stage's engine was fueled by a RP-1 and liquid oxygen mix, and burned for just shy of three minutes.

The Able second stage burned a single AJ-10 engine for nearly two minutes with a fuel mixture of nitric acid and Dimethylhydrazine.

The April 1st launch would be the last of the Thor-Able combination.

Sister satellite, TIROS-2, was later launched later that November and would last only eight weeks due to a failure.

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