Where there's smoke

This space-based tech spots wildfires early to help save lives

VIIRS image of Australia

Image taken by VIIRS aboard the NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite shows several large bush fires, represented as red spots, burning in Australia’s Northern Territory on July 17, 2019. (NOAA photo)

Five hundred?miles above the Earth, there is technology that can detect wildfires, pinpoint their?locations and alert emergency responders so they can react more quickly.

Raytheon's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or?VIIRS, and it is aboard two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites high above the Earth: Suomi-National Polar-orbiting Partnership, which has been in?orbit for nearly eight years, and NOAA-20, part of the Joint Polar Satellite System,?launched in 2017.

From their perch in space, these instruments capture?data that helps firefighters see smoke and locate fire hot spots. Today, government agencies around the world, like U.S. National Forest Service and Geoscience Australia, use VIIRS’s open-source data to actively monitor wildfires.

“Since we have two VIIRS instruments on orbit, you get one observation where you would see the fire, and then?50 minutes later, you get another observation,” said Shawn Cochran, senior manager for civil and environmental space at?Raytheon. “Now you can get a sense of how the fire is moving and where to put resources to stop it.”

One of the countries using this technology to track smoke is Australia, where seasonal bush fires are a natural part of the landscape. To help emergency services control the fires, the government created an online, interactive map called Sentinel Hotspots. The mapping tool uses data from VIIRS to provide firefighters and the public with near-real-time information of active fires.

VIIRS instruments use sensors to?capture light in 22 bands, from visible to infrared,?and then process the data to convert it to images. The instruments detect fire hot spots by using a moderate resolution band that looks at heat signatures coming from the ground.

Thermal emissions are geolocated to provide first responders with the exact location of the fires. The instruments can also keep an eye on where smoke is traveling. Smoke plumes, ash and particulate from fires can cause eye and respiratory problems – and they can’t always be seen with the naked eye.

“VIIRS actually maps the smoke. It helps scientists and government agencies whose air quality might be impacted from a forest fire raging hundreds of miles away,” said Cochran.
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NOAA Photo of Australian Wildfires Taken by VIIRS
Plumes of smoke from brush fires spread across northern Australia. This image was captured by VIIRS aboard NOAA-20 on July 18, 2019. (NOAA photo)

VIIRS builds on technology?pioneered by its predecessor, called?MODIS, or Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer. MODIS also performs a basic form of fire detection from NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites, launched in 1999 and 2001 – and continues to provide useful data 20 years after?launch.??

NOAA and NASA plan to launch three more VIIRS instruments in the coming years.

Combined,?MODIS and VIIRS?have been in orbit for close to 46 years,?delivering valuable imagery and data to government and educational institutions.

In addition to its ability to track wildfires, the instrument generates critical information about emerging storms and environmental data, including snow and ice cover, algal blooms and nighttime phenomena.

JPSS is the U.S.'s advanced series of polar-orbiting environmental satellites for severe weather prediction and environmental monitoring.?Its data is critical to providing timely and accurate forecasts, three to seven days in advance of a severe weather event. JPSS is a collaborative effort between NOAA and NASA.

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Published On: 08/21/2019
Last Updated: 08/26/2019