Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

New results show which way the ocean winds blow
Posted: Feb. 6, 2000

Data from QuikScat satellite shows global ocean wind directions. Photo: NASA/JPL
Scientists, weather forecasters and the public take possession of a valuable stream of meteorological and climate observations this week, as the first calibrated measurements from NASA's SeaWinds instrument on the Quikscat satellite become available -- information that can improve weather forecasting around the world.

Access to daily wind data and animations from the ocean-wind tracker, managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., is available on the Internet at and at

"We're opening the tap on this global data to the world," said Dr. Michael Freilich, principal investigator on SeaWinds and a professor at Oregon State University, Corvallis. The measurements and data products show developing weather systems with unprecedented detail.

"SeaWinds measurements of the direction and strength of the winds at the ocean surface give us new knowledge that, in combination with satellite measurements of clouds, temperature and other data, can be used for understanding how different weather systems and storms develop, and for predicting weather over the entire globe," Freilich said. The measurements, he added, also are crucial for understanding ocean currents, climate patterns, and the cyclical and anomalous variations that occur in those patterns.

The heart of SeaWinds is a specially designed spaceborne radar instrument called a scatterometer. The radar operates at a microwave frequency that penetrates clouds. This, coupled with the satellite's polar orbit, makes the wind systems over the entire world's oceans visible to SeaWinds on a daily basis. The measurements provide detailed information about ocean winds, waves, currents, polar ice features and other phenomena, for the benefit of meteorologists, climatologists, oceanographers and mariners.

Artist's concept of NASA's QuikScat spacecraft with SeaWinds instrument orbiting Earth. Photo: NASA
SeaWinds was launched June 19, 1999, and engineers and scientists have successfully calibrated the satellite and verified the accuracy of its data over the past few months.

"This new knowledge of winds over the oceans is essential for many oceanographic, meteorological and climate investigations, as well as for improving regional and global operational weather predictions," said climate researcher Dr. Ralph Milliff of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colo. "SeaWinds data are eagerly anticipated by these research and operational communities."

"Near real-time wind-vector measurements from SeaWinds represent a vast improvement in coverage over the generally data-sparse oceans," said SeaWinds science team member Dr. Paul Chang of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service. "SeaWinds data will be used operationally by marine forecasters and for numerical weather prediction models. These data promise to yield significant improvements in short-term warnings and forecasts and in medium- to long-range forecasts."

The orbiting SeaWinds radar instrument is managed for NASA's Office of Earth Science, Washington, D.C., by JPL, which also oversaw development of the SeaWinds radar instrument and is providing ground science-processing systems. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., managed development of the satellite, designed and built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NOAA is contributing to ground system processing and distributing SeaWinds data in near-real time to the international operational weather forecasting community. NASA and NOAA are working together to transition these critical wind measurements from research to operational missions to improve the accuracy of current weather forecasts and to extend forecast projections from three to five days.

NASA's Earth Science Enterprise is a long-term research and technology program designed to examine Earth's land, oceans, atmosphere, ice and life as a total integrated system.

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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