March 07, 2015

Star Trek Weather Technology Versus Today's

This week many of us were saddened by the passing of Leonard Nimoy, a.k.a. Spock of the original Star Trek series.   I was a big fan of his.

Many of you might remember there was a lot of weather technology on the Starship Enterprise: how does it compare to what we have today?

The answer:  in many ways we equal or exceed the space-based capabilities available to Mr. Spock (or his successor, Mr. Data) for surveying the atmosphere's of planets, and particularly our own.

I remember remember well that when they orbited a new planet (e.g., the "beta solarian system"), they had fancy scanners that determined the characteristics of the planet's atmosphere and surface:

We can do FAR better than than today.   The U.S. and other countries have dozens of sophisticated weather and climate sensing satellites in orbit, with a huge array of sensors.   Here are some pictures of a few of the satellites:

We start with the ability to create images by observing radiation reflected or emitted by the  planet at several wavelengths.  Like visible light

or infrared light (which tells us the temperature of clouds and surface 24-h a day)

or at wavelengths in which water vapor emits a lot of radiation.

And there are many more I am not mentioning.

Several satellites have "sounders" that scan the earth in many wavelengths, each able to penetrate the atmosphere to a different depth.  The result is the ability to produce temperature and humidity profiles with height (known as soundings) ANYWHERE on the planet.  It is like having the ability to launch radiosondes (balloon-borne sensors) all over the globe.

By tracking clouds and water vapor features, weather satellites can get tens of thousands winds around the planet:

Or by scattering microwave radiation off of the ocean, we can get winds over the world's water bodies (an example below for Superstorm Sandy)

Other satellite sensors take the temperature of the earth's surface, reveal its moisture content, snow distribution, and the nature of the plants growing on it (such as the NDVI, Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, shown below)

There are many other satellite sensors that I could describe, but that would take ten more blogs.  Even Mr. Spock would be impressed.

The bottom line is that current weather satellite technology, well beyond that shown on Star Trek, gives modern-day meteorologists a comprehensive three-dimensional view of the structure of the earth's atmosphere and a detailed description of the nature of the earth's surface.  These satellite observations are probably the main reason why weather forecasting has improved so much in the last 30 years.

Long live and prosper


  1. Landslide geologists frequently use NDVI to monitor anomalous vegetation changes across landslide-susceptible terrain, in an effort to detect or monitor landslide occurrence. Very useful tool.

  2. Glad to be living on a Class M planet.

  3. This is a really neat website that can display wind patterns at different altitudes, TPW, relative humid and much more. Even the surface ocean currents.

  4. Useful information shared about this newest technology. I am very happy to read this article. Thanks for giving us nice info. Fantastic walk through. I appreciate this post.

  5. yes, can't agree more, the satellite observations are definitely the main reason why weather forecasting has improved so much in the last 30 years, they have made great contributions to our human beings


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