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Flying in Formation
By Patrick L. Barry

You can almost see the tabloid headlines now: "Mid-west farmer spies UFO squadron flying in formation!" "First signs of imminent alien invasion," the subtitle will read.

If only this fictional farmer had been keeping up with NASA's Space Place column, he would have known better. The string of white dots moving in formation across the pre-dawn sky were satellites, not alien spaceships.

Beginning next year, a series of challenging, high-precision launches will insert four satellites into orbits with just the right altitude, position, and orbital inclination to follow in lock-step behind NASA's Aqua satellite (launched in May 2002). Scientists have dubbed this squadron of satellites the "A-Train." Along with Aqua, the celestial parade will include Cloudsat, CALIPSO, PARASOL, and Aura.

In April 2004, NASA will launch CloudSat, an Earth-observing satellite with unique cloud-measurement abilities. These measurements will fill an important role in our understanding of global climate change, making long-term climate change scenarios more accurate and dependable.

So why bother flying in formation? By passing over the same swath of land within seconds or minutes of each other, the satellites will give scientists snapshots of essentially the same scene using a total of 14 different measuring instruments. CloudSat alone carries only one: a millimeter-wavelength radar sounder.

This sounder-the first of its kind put into orbit-lets scientists see a vertical "slice" of the atmosphere that shows clouds, water, and ice between the ground and 30 km altitude, with a vertical resolution of 0.5 km. Even by itself, this instrument would provide an important and unique view of Earth's atmosphere, since the accurate portrayal of clouds is one of the glaring weaknesses with current simulations of climate change.

But this cloud data is even more valuable when combined with measurements from the other satellites in the A-Train-for example, air temperature, trace gases, and radiation into and out of the atmosphere. Scientists can then see connections between, say, temperature and the resulting behavior of clouds. A better understanding of these connections is one of the most sought-after goals of climate research, because changes to global cloud cover would, in turn, have a feedback effect on global temperatures.

The real story of this satellite squadron may not make the tabloid headlines, but at least there's evidence that the imminent threat of climate change is real, which is a lot more than you can say for alien invaders!

Learn more about CloudSat and the A-Train at cloudsat.atmos.colostate.edu .  Kids (and grownups) can do interactive cloud picture scrambles and learn "Cloudspeak" (the names of different kinds of clouds) at The Space Place, spaceplace.nasa.gov/cloudsat_puz.htm .

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.



CloudSat, to be launched in November 2004, will take its place as part of the "A-Train" of satellites flying in formation to take closely timed snapshots of essentially the same scene using a total of 14 different measuring instruments.

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