Weather satellites: A brief history and how they are used today

Published: Apr. 1, 2020 at 9:49 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Weather satellites are critical in understanding how our planet functions when it comes to your daily weather. Here is some history on weather satellites and the types of satellite imagery used in today’s age.

In 1946, the idea of weather imagery was born. It took several years but in 1960, the first successful weather satellite was launched into orbit. It was called TIROS-1. NASA launched this satellite into space on April 1st of that year.

ESSA and NOAA were soon to follow, launching weather satellites into orbit in the late 1960s. The Nimbus 3 satellite vastly improved weather data in 1969, when it could measure temperature information in the troposphere. The GOES series of satellites began in the 1970s.

By the late 1970s, polar orbiting satellites had the capabilities of relaying wind data from near the ocean’s surface. This was pivotal in developing the study of tropical storm intensification.

Recent satellite technology from GOES-17 has been able to detect lightning strikes via visible satellite.


There are three types of satellite imagery that meteorologists commonly use. These are visible, infrared, and water vapor imagery.


Visible satellite imagery can only be viewed during the daytime as clouds reflect light from the sun. Many features can be pointed out with visible imagery including determining thunderstorm development before radar does. You can even determine if land is snow covered with visible imagery. Looping imagery helps differentiate between snow cover and clouds.

Visible satellite imagery can also detect smoke which helps measure if a wildfire is growing. Satellites were very important for Australia’s record brush fire season this winter.


Infrared imagery can show clouds day or night. Infrared imagery identifies heat radiation. Clouds are much cooler than land so they are easily identifiable with infrared imagery. If clouds are not radiating much heat, it means they are high in the sky and usually identify strong and severe thunderstorms. Infrared imagery can also determine fog at night.


Water vapor imagery is used to determine moisture levels in certain areas. Moisture is measured in the 15,000 to 30,000 foot level of the atmosphere. High moisture areas show brighter colors than low moisture areas. Determining high moisture is pivotal in understanding rainfall capabilities.