PHOTOS: The MODIS Instrument Is the Michelangelo of Satellite Imagery

By Jenna Abate, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
February 10, 2014; 2:00 AM
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During the Renaissance, Michelangelo was regarded as a master among men of the arts. The artist could paint, sculpt and draw and also did research in the field of science.

If photography had been invented, Michelangelo may have tried his artistic hand at that as well. Today, NASA may have their own version of Michelangelo's photography orbiting our planet this very moment.

NASA defines the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) as "a key instrument aboard the Terra (EOS AM) and Aqua (EOS PM) satellites that orbit our planet."

Terra circles Earth in a polar orbit (from north to south) and Aqua is in a geostationary pattern (around the equator).

Like the great Renaissance man, MODIS is a master in many categories. Robert Gutro of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center said, "MODIS is used for a lot of different things, not just weather-related events. But it can pick up readings of ocean, land, atmospheric pressure and ice, so I can see why meteorologists like it."

MODIS Science Team Leader Michael King said, "Most Earth-observing satellites can only go pole to pole but MODIS [an instrument aboard Terra and Aqua] is much more than that. It has four global sensors and can see objects 1 km [with a broad swath (2330 km)] in size. Because it is so very well calibrated, its imagery never saturates."

According to the Goddard Space Flight Center, a typical satellite observes anywhere from seven to nine bands or wavelengths at a time and sends its findings back to base. The MODIS instrument is innovative in the fact that it looks at 36 different bands and is capable of seeing parts of the spectrum that nothing else can.

King said that MODIS succeeded an instrument that is now considered inferior. Previous instruments could only see five bands, weren't calibrated and had a coarser view. MODIS isn't just regarded as a quantitative instrument but also qualitative.

"MODIS is equipped with a detail-oriented, 250 m resolution that allows it to even detect areas of Earth that are covered in snow," said Gutro.

Snow and ice in the Southeastern United States. Jan. 19, 2014

AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said, "We (meteorologists) love MODIS in particular for its capabilities during severe weather. It uses infrared and and visible imagery to show us the most extraordinary pictures of forest fires especially during a transition into spring."

Gutro explained the addition of an algorithm that allows MODIS to detect heat signals so it can even send images of fires and smoke and even just how widespread a fire is.

Colby Fire, Calif. Jan. 16, 2014.

Because of its heat-sensing capabilities, MODIS was able to create this snapshot of Mount Etna as the lava and molten rock began to heat up right before its most recent eruption in late January.

Mount Etna gears up for eruption. Jan. 22, 2014.

"Infrared and visible imagery allow us to detect cyclones, and their early development and MODIS' imagery delivery system is spot on. Every two hours updated images are sent to Earth via the MODIS rapid response system, so we can see when a storm is approaching land," Gutro explained.

"For disaster weather like Hurricane Katrina or Typhoon Haiyan, MODIS was our go-to. The MODIS sensors allow us to see the eye of the storms and the internal structure. We can see what we call a stadium effect where we can go from the eye and see its span in a rising 'v' shape. We can get very accurate readings."

Tropical Cyclone Ian skirting Fiji. Jan. 9, 2013.

MODIS is also reliable for meteorologists when predicting dust storms. They can use images from Terra and Aqua to pinpoint where thunderstorms have occurred and see if dust has kicked up, read wind patterns and determine threat of a dust storm. Even the cloud of smog that covers China can be detected by MODIS.

Dust storm off the coast of West Africa. Sept. 4, 2005.

Thick Smog over China. Jan. 27, 2006.

King eluded that a MODIS' successor is already in the works, but Kottlowski said for now, he is sticking to imagery that he can trust.

"MODIS is really a two-fold tool. One, it can be used for extensive research during real time or close to real-time extreme weather events. Two, it's good for archived imagery and post-processing of data to determine drought, dry areas or even extreme heat. It's just really good at what it does."

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