SSEC Instrument Developments

Beginning with Verner Suomi’s thermal radiation experiment in 1959, scientists and engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Space Science and Engineering have continuously invented new ways to study the Earth and other planets. To do so, they have designed and built spaceflight, airborne, and ground-based instruments to conduct atmospheric, oceanic, environmental, and astronomical research. The results of that research have led – and continue to lead – to better understanding of our planet, yielding direct benefits to society.

ADR: Adiabatic Demagnetization Refrigerator

The Adiabatic Demagnetization Refrigerator (ADR) flew on the Astro-E satellite, a joint Japanese-NASA X-ray astronomy project. The instrument was designed to cool one of the astrophysics satellite's X-ray detectors down to almost absolute zero. At such low temperatures, the heat generated by a single X-ray photon can be detected and measured. "An ADR works by first using a large magnet to align the magnetic poles (spins) of all the molecules in a block of salt (called the salt pill). The salt pill is then connected to a liquid helium bath via a "heat switch", allowing it to cool to the temperature of the liquid helium (about 1.5 Kelvin). Once it has reached equilibrium with the helium, the heat switch is opened, so that heat can no longer flow between the salt pill and the helium. Once the heat switch is open, the magnetic field is slowly reduced nearly to zero, allowing the spins of the salt molecules to flop around in random directions. This absorbs heat from the salt pill, cooling it. (Source:

Low-Resolution Omnidirectional Radiometer

This experiment was designed to measure the amount of solar energy absorbed, reflected, and emitted by the Earth and its atmosphere. The experiment consisted primarily of two sets of bolometers in the form of hollow aluminum hemispheres, mounted on opposite sides of the spacecraft, whose optical axes were parallel to the spin axis. The bolometers were mounted on mirror surfaces so that the hemispheres behaved very much like isolated spheres in space. One bolometer in each set was painted black, and one was painted white. The black bolometer absorbed most of the incident radiation while the white bolometer was sensitive mainly to radiation with wavelengths longer than approximately 4 micrometers. The experiment was a success, and usable data were received from July 12, 1961, to October 20, 1961. Identical experiments were flown on TIROS 4 and 7, and a similar one was carried on Explorer 7. From: Compendium of meteorological space programs, satellites, and experiments. NSSDC Publication no.88-03. NASA, 1988.

NAST-I: National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Aircraft Sounding Testbed-Interferometer

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) Aircraft Sounding Testbed-Interferometer (NAST-I) is a high spectral resolution Michelson interferometer created at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and based on the High resolution Interferometer Sounder developed by researchers at the UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center. The instrument measures the infrared spectrum between 4 and 15 microns, providing highly accurate spectra, which can be used to infer vertical profiles of atmospheric temperature, moisture and other trace constituents. The NAST-I instrument flies on NASA's high altitude research aircraft, the ER-2, and scans the earth from beneath the aircraft with a nominal spatial resolution of approximately 2.5 km and a swath width of about 45 km. NAST-I plays a key role in the evaluation of instrument technologies and satellite data processing techniques for inclusion in future advanced NPOESS weather satellites. In performing this role, NAST-I is advancing infrared sounder technology with the goal of improved operational weather forecasts. SSEC scientists are supporting NAST-I efforts by participating in field experiments, providing instrument calibration, conducting research using data collected by NAST-I, and using experience with NAST-I to assist in the design of future instruments. [SSEC]


Dr. Verner Suomi obtained funding from NASA and NOAA to implement a proof-of-concept system dedicated to measuring and visualizing cloud drift winds. The new computer system had to allow the user to specify the image coordinates of a cloud in at least three successive images. Since the digital images were stored on computer tape, a method was required to map and display coordinates to and from tape. The proof-of-concept system used to demonstrate winds processing was called WINDCO (Lazzara, 1999). WINDCO was a precursor to the Man computer Interactive Data Access System (McIDAS).

BLIS: Boundary Layer Instrumentation System

Designed and built at the Space Science and Engineering Center, the Boundary Layer Instrumentation System (BLIS) was part of the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP) and was designed specifically to meet the observational requirements of GARP's Atlantic Tropical Experiment (GATE). The system was designed to measure temperature, humidity, pressure altitude and the total wind vector (speed and direction of both vertical and horizontal components) in the lower 1500 meters of the atmosphere. BLIS consisted of five Boundary Layer Instrument Packages (BLIPs), attached to a tether line suspended from a helium-filled balloon 1500 meters above sea level. The tether line was payed out from a shipboard winch. Data is telemetered from the BLIPs to an on-board Portable Data Acquisition System (PODAS), or to a smaller ground station. Excerpted from BLIS: The Boundary Layer Instrumentation System

AERI: Atmospheric Emitted Radiance Interferometer

"The Atmospheric Emitted Radiance Interferometer (AERI) is a ground-based instrument that measures the downwelling infrared radiance (radiant energy) from the Earth’s atmosphere. The observations have broad spectral content, and sufficient spectral resolution to discriminate among gaseous emitters (e.g. carbon dioxide, water vapor) and suspended matter (e.g. aerosols, water droplets, ice crystals). These uplooking surface observations can be used to obtain vertical profiles of tropospheric temperature and water vapor, as well as measurements of trace gases (e.g. ozone, carbon monoxide, methane) and downwelling infrared spectral signatures of clouds and aerosols. " AERI observations are often used to validate and calibrate satellite observations. Text from “The AERI was designed by the University of Wisconsin Space Science and Engineering Center (UW-SSEC) for the Department of Energy (DOE) Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program in the 1990s. The AERI instrument played an essential role in the success of the ARM program by providing an accurate reference in tropical, mid-latitude continental, and arctic atmospheres for the validation of infrared radiative transfer models used in climate models. AERI instruments have since been deployed worldwide.” AERI observations are often used to validate and calibrate satellite observations. Text from Instrument homepage: In the news: GOES & AERI and 1999 Oklahoma tornado:


Launched on December 7, 1966, the Applications Technology Satellite-I, was a communications satellite as well as the first geostationary satellite. It carried Verner Suomi and Robert Parent's Spin-Scan Cloud Camera (SSCC), the technology that made it possible to view Earth from geosynchronous orbit. The launch of ATS-I ushered in the era of continuous viewing of weather from space. Suomi understood the benefits of observing a single weather phenomenon over time. These kinds of observations were not possible using the early, low-altitude polar-orbiting satellites. Identical experiments were flown on the ESSA 5, ESSA 7, and ESSA 9 spacecrafts. The radiometer performed normally, and good data was obtained from launch until the tape recorder failed on January 20, 1967. credit: SSEC


Launched on November 5, 1967, the Applications Technology Satellite (ATS)-III carried the Multicolor Spin-Scan Cloudcover Camera (MSSCC), the second generation of UW-Madison professor Verner Suomi's revolutionary technology. It sent the first color images of Earth from geostationary orbit -- ATS-III was the only geostationary satellite with a channel for observing phenomena in true blue color, which was, and remains, a unique feature for a weather satellite. The camera provided color pictures for approximately three months at which time the red and blue channels failed. The system continued to transmit black-and-white pictures until December, 11 1974. credit: SSEC.

Hiaper HRL: High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research

In 1998 the NSF added the High-Performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research aircraft to its fleet. The plane will be able to explore the tropopause, “the area between the upper and lower atmospheres that features a vital exchange of solar energy and contains the tops of thunderstorms and hurricanes.” The University of Wisconsin-Madison was contracted to construct a High Resolution Lidar to remotely sense the air column beneath the aircraft. Credit: SSEC


The Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) mission, led and developed by NASA and partner organizations, including the Space Science and Engineering Center, will monitor the pulse of the Earth to better understand climate change.The earliest satellite measurements of the Earth’s environment extend back to Verner Suomi’s ground-breaking radiation budget experiment launched on the Explorer 7 satellite in 1959. From that initial study until today, satellite instruments have been measuring the total, wavelength-averaged solar and infrared contributions to assess the energy balance of the planet. In contrast, CLARREO’s instruments will provide full spectra of both the solar-reflected and infrared-emitted radiances that contain much more information about the detailed structure of the climate state. These high spectral resolution radiances, along with atmospheric refractivity from GPS occultation, will be used to test climate model predictions with greater sensitivity to decadal changes. Since 2008, SSEC scientists and engineers have developed and thoroughly tested a prototype of the new infrared instrumentation needed for CLARREO. The successful prototype consists of a Calibrated Fourier Transform Spectrometer with especially low biases and a system to verify and test the spectrometer directly on orbit. SSEC’s diligence has resulted in a milestone achievement for CLARREO. In September 2013, NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office announced that SSEC’s prototype for the CLARREO infrared instrumentation achieved the ‘technological readiness’ to proceed with a spaceflight mission. A key part of CLARREO’s on-orbit verification and test system is the On-Orbit Absolute Radiance Standard (OARS) that uses multiple phase change cells for absolute temperature calibration. The CLARREO mission will provide accurate, credible, and tested climate records that lay the groundwork for informed decisions on mitigation and adaptation policies that address the effects of climate change on society. From:

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