Expect your local weather girl to start giving more accurate forecasts for sun, rain and snow. | PHOTOS

And count on scientists to provide better models on how climate change will affect your world.

Thanks to sensors made in El Segundo, weather forecasters and others will have more accurate and timely data to make projections. Even air travel could become safer as we can better track the ash in the sky from volcanic eruptions.

These sensors, made by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, also have produced the most vivid images of the nighttime Earth from space, allowing even laymen to better appreciate our planet's visual flourishes.

It has been just over a year since Raytheon's suite of sensors, known as VIIRS, was launched into orbit on a government scientific satellite.

"They give us a new and improved way of observing the environment by virtue of advancements in technology over the previous versions of these observations," said Steven Miller, a researcher scientist at Colorado State University whose modeling work contributes to weather forecasts.

One of the 22 bands, or channels, on the VIIRS sensors is known as the day-night band. This new technology provides much clearer and timely images of the Earth at night. (VIIRS stands for Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite.)

"It's truly new information," Miller said.

At a recent conference in San Francisco, NASA released spectacular nighttime images of the Earth - dubbed the Black Marble - taken by VIIRS' day-night band. The Black Marble contrasts with early satellite images of Earth in daylight known as the Blue Marble.

NASA used the conference to put the images' detail and resolution on display in part to demonstrate the agency's work to the public. But for the scientific community, the implications of such resolution on research were more dramatic.

"The whole gamut of considerations come into play here, all the way from the improved ability to observe the weather as it's happening right now and provide better guidance in the very near term to commerce and transportation," Miller said.

For example, computerized weather models depend on sometimes rough estimations of weather conditions to forecast future weather especially since the nighttime images of Earth are less precise than those in the daytime. However, with VIIRS' improved nighttime imagery, scientists can enhance their weather modeling after the sun sets.

This also will help in tracking volcanic plumes of ash traveling through the sky or other atmospheric phenomena at night, possibly leading to more accurate maps of dangerous skies for aircraft.

"It helps everybody understand the contrasts and the measurements and what's going on," said James Gleason, NASA's project scientist for the Suomi NPP satellite, which carries VIIRS in a polar orbit around Earth.

Suomi NPP is a joint program by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"In some regards, the day-night band is giving data that they never had before," said Warren Flynn, Raytheon's director of environmental sensing. "Primarily, what we're talking about is cloud imagery, but also dust, fires, fog, all at night."

Scientists can also use Raytheon's day-night band to track urban development. For example, finer nighttime images can help scientists understand the correlation between urban light in cities and health problems among residents.

"What they now see with the VIIRS sensor, its resolution and sensitivity, is so much better than it was before that it's really establishing a new baseline," Flynn said.

Raytheon is currently building a second-generation of VIIRS with scheduled delivery in 2014. A satellite will carry this second VIIRS into orbit in 2016.

Miller emphasized the importance of the Black Marble, not just for science but also for society's perceptions of the environment since the nighttime images vividly show humans' footprint on the planet.

"For years we had the Blue Marble, the picture of the daylight side of the Earth," Miller said. "When people saw that picture of the Earth from space ... it gave us a new appreciation of the beauty of our world. With the Black Marble, it reminds us of our role in that world in a more intimate way. And it reminds us of our responsibility as stewards of this Earth."

muhammed.el-hasan@dailybreeze.com


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