Why do clouds make rain?

Apr 302007
Authors: Nikki Cristello

CloudSat, a super-sensitive satellite that profiles clouds, celebrated its first anniversary Saturday and is helping scientists answer that question.

The journey to this point hasn’t exactly been Cloud 9 material, though.

CSU atmospheric science professor and scientist Graeme Stephens has been working on CloudSat since 1993.

“CloudSat is a giant leap,” Stephens said. “It is really unique and most satisfying to see what’s truly new in providing observations of the atmospheric world. We have been thirsting for it because of the uniqueness of it. Discovery is the unique aspect.”

Deborah Vane, CloudSat project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has worked with Stephens since 1993. JPL is a NASA center staffed and managed for the government by Caltech. It is a federally funded research and development center.

The project was advocated for but was not accepted by NASA until the second proposal. That was in 1998. It has cost about $170 million dollars in the past seven years.

JPL is funding CIRA to do data processing with NASA funds. It’s a complicated arrangement, but for the folks working on CloudSat, it is totally worth it.

CloudSat is a satellite that carries unique radar to observe cloud precipitation to understand the cycle of water from earth to sky and back down again.

Clouds are important to study and understand because water strongly affects climate change and global warming.

This ultra-sensitive satellite has been quite successful in its first year. It allows scientists to see particles in clouds and in rain, because Stephens said we still don’t understand the conversion of clouds to water.

CloudSat is sending data to countries all over the world. This satellite is different because rather than see where it is raining as it is raining, it is helping scientists try to see where it will rain before people get wet.

The launch happened April 28, 2006, but was hard to see due to the clouds. The irony was not lost on any of those in California for the launch.

“It was really exciting, but a little disappointing,” Vane said. The fog was so bad we just saw a small light and then a minute later the roar (of it breaking the sound barrier).”

Don Reinke manages the CloudSat data processing center in the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere here at CSU. CIRA, which is attached to the College of Engineering, is responsible for operating the data from CloudSat.

The information CloudSat produces includes maps of clouds, types of clouds, whether the cloud is made of ice or water and shows the amount of radiation, or heat energy, going from the clouds to the ground and from clouds to space.

The most rewarding aspect of the past year was “the fact that this is an experimental mission and been this successful,” Reinke said. “It’s the first time this type of instrument has been flown in space. The fact it has been flying for over a year in space is quite rewarding.”

Vane travels to CSU about once a month and said it is gratifying knowing the scientific community is excited about – and is using – the data CloudSat produces.

“The data processing center at CSU is a real jewel,” Vane said. “The university should be very, very proud of the center.”

Staff writer Nikki Cristello can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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