Named after the Latin word for rain cloud, the Nimbus satellites were a series of seven Earth-observation satellites launched over a 14-year time period from 1964 to 1978, one of which did not achieve orbit. In total, the satellites provided Earth observations for 30 years and collectively carried a total of 33 instruments, including ozone mappers, the Coastal Zone Color Scanner instrument and microwave and infrared radiometers.
“Nimbus is the granddaddy of the current Earth-observing fleet,” said Piers Sellers, deputy director of the Sciences and Exploration Directorate and acting director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
“When you look at all the incredible science we are doing from Earth orbit right now, you can trace it back to Nimbus. By any measure – scientific, engineering, operational, economic, human – the program was a smashing success and a huge return on investment.”
These satellites revolutionized weather forecasting to accomplish accurate long-term forecasts and demonstrated location and related search-and-rescue technology. They provided some of the first consistent global measurements of Earth, such as sea measurements, oceanic plant life and the ozone layer.
“There’s never been quite another program like Nimbus in terms of a such a dedicated series of satellites and instruments, pushing the boundaries of our technology and expanding our scientific understanding of our world,” said Gene Feldman, oceanographer at Goddard.
Nimbus paved the way for future Earth-observing systems such as Aqua, Terra, Aura, Landsat, Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS), Tropical Rain Measuring Mission and many more. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Nimbus satellite’s launch in 1964, NASA takes a look at some, but certainly not all, of the “first-ever” observations from the Nimbus satellites.
+ First to provide daylight and night-time pictures of intense hurricane clouds viewed from space, which initiated the use of satellite technology to provide hurricane warnings.
+ First to measure ozone columns and profiles from space, which led to the first confirmation of the ozone hole and the documentation of the recurrence of the hole every year during the southern-hemisphere springtime.
+ First to provide quantitative data on the size of volcanic eruptions by measuring sulfur dioxide, a unique tracer of volcanic eruptions. This led the path for other volcanic ash cloud tracking instruments such as the Ozone Monitoring Instrument.
+ First to provide extensive global observations of spectral signatures of ice that indicate the age of the sea ice and first to provide snow depth and snow accumulation rates over the Arctic and Antarctica. This paved the way for other NASA satellites such as Aqua and Terra.
+ First to provide global, direct observations of the amount of solar radiation entering and exiting Earth’s system. This helped to confirm and improve the earliest climate models and laid the groundwork for Cloud and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) instruments on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites and now on Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite.
+ First to create a map of global distribution of photosynthetic organisms, such as phytoplankton, in the world’s ocean from space. This helped scientists understand the ocean’s role in the exchange of carbon around the world and led the way for missions such as SeaWiFS, Aqua and Terra.
+ First microwave devices to distinguish rain over ocean and between snow and ice in polar areas.
+ First capability to globally measure the temperature in a planetary atmosphere quantitatively and qualitatively from space. This paved the way for instruments on NASA’s Voyager, Cassini, Aqua and Terra.
+ First to map topography and Earth’s mineral resources from space, which laid the groundwork for similar instruments on Earth-observing mapping satellites such as Landsat.
+ First satellite to reveal an ice-free opening in the Antarctica ice pack. This patch of open water, called a polynya, appeared during the winters of 1974-76 in the Weddell Sea and has not been observed since.
+ First meteorological satellites to provide day and night local area coverage every 24-hours, repeated at the same time daily. This sun-synchronous orbit became the norm for satellites.
+ First solar panels on a satellite that track the sun during the daylight portion of an orbit, an advancement adapted to many of today’s satellites. This sun-tracking arrangement allows the solar panels to harness more power than if the solar cells were fixed to the spacecraft body.
+ Demonstrated the first technology that allowed satellites to track movements of people, animals and items on Earth. This paved the way for GPS technology and international search and rescue satellite-aided tracking programs.
For more in-depth information about the Nimbus series’ contributions to earth science research please go here