On June 7, 2006, the CALIPSO satellite got to work doing something that has made atmospheric scientists very, very happy over the last 10 years.
In an event known as “First Light,” the satellite, whose name stands for Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation, began collecting lidar measurements of the vertical structure and properties of Earth’s clouds and atmospheric aerosols. Those aerosols are made up of things like dust, sea salt, ash and soot.
On its first day of operation, CALIPSO observed the layers of clouds and aerosols in an orbit over eastern Asia, Indonesia and Australia.
Since then, CALIPSO has used its lasers to take more than 5.7 billion lidar measurements. Here are just a few of the ways it has added to our understanding of atmospheric science:
- During NASA’s Tropical Composition, Cloud and Climate Coupling mission in 2007, CALIPSO helped visualize the lifecycle of cirrus clouds that flow out of the tops of storm systems that form over warm tropical oceans.
- CALIPSO has provided images of the vertical distribution of clouds in tropical cyclones — like Typhoon Choi-Wan, which formed in the Pacific Ocean in 2009.
- In spring of 2010, CALIPSO gave researchers an unprecedented look at the enormous plume of ash, smoke and steam that belched forth from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano and brought air traffic over the Atlantic and parts of Europe to a grinding halt.
- CALIPSO has also helped researchers quantify in three dimensions the way in which the strong winds that sweep through the Sahara Desert carry dust across the Atlantic to the Amazon rain forest of South America.
“CALIPSO has been an extraordinarily successful mission,” said project scientist Chip Trepte of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “It’s transformed our understanding of clouds and given us tremendous insight into their vertical structure and where in the atmosphere they form.”
CALIPSO is a joint venture between NASA and the French Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, or CNES.