Video 'For Good Measure' shows global reach of NASA's next rain-measuring mission

April 12, 2013 by Ellen Gray
Visualization of the GPM Core Observatory and partner satellites.

The standing joke when scientists talk about understanding Earth's weather patterns in relationship to climate change is that they need to know three things for their models: precipitation, precipitation and precipitation. Scientists need more data, more frequently, over more of Earth's surface.

The short video "For Good Measure" explains why scientists turn to satellites to get a worldwide view of rainfall. Filmed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., with a cast of more than 20 volunteers, the video walks through how rain touches our lives and how scientists plan to improve measurements with the upcoming Global Precipitation Measurement mission.

The video will load shortly

The Global mission, or GPM, provides the next generation of rainfall measurements from space. The mission is designed to tap into the observational power of nine independent satellites flying around Earth and combine their precipitation data into a single, global data set every three hours. With combined measurements, the GPM constellation becomes a powerful tool for observing rainfall worldwide.

Observing rainfall has become standard in our modern world. Where the rain goes, so too do the umbrellas—and flood warnings, drought assessments, estimates for freshwater , long term planning for farmers, alerts for , even famine early warning systems. Rain, snow, winter mix, hail and every other form of water falling from the sky touches everyone on Earth.

But the whole Earth surface is not covered by instruments to measure precipitation. Rain gauges collect precipitation in one spot that often represents huge areas. In the United States, for example, the maintains on average one for every 400 square miles (about 20 miles apart). That's one point to represent rainfall, which is fine for looking at the regional picture, but not as good for covering the effects of individual rainstorms.

To measure and study incoming storms, meteorologists and scientists often use ground radar. Individual radars can cover an average area of 50,000 square miles (a range of 125 miles in each direction), and when combined with other radars in a network a more complete picture of the coming precipitation takes shape. However, even in countries with excellent radar coverage, gaps still exist, especially for higher altitude clouds that are out of reliable radar range and over mountain ranges that can block the radar signals.

In many places around the world, countries can't afford to have dense networks of rain gauges or radars, and so they often go without. Over the ocean, measurements from ships and islands are even fewer and farther in between. That's 78 percent of the world where we don't know, from the surface, how much fresh water is raining down into the salty oceans. And that means fewer data points for scientists to use to predict future weather and climate changes around the world.

Satellites fill in those gaps. Circling hundreds of miles above us, Earth-observing satellites take measurements of the whole globe. The GPM mission is based on the success of the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission, or TRMM. This pioneering precipitation satellite circles Earth at an angle that allows it to see all the rainfall in the tropics, an area between the latitudes of 35 north and 35 south, the southern border of Tennessee and about halfway through Argentina.

Scientists wanting more observations combine TRMM's advanced rain data with data from other satellites that measure rainfall. This system allows them to increase the number of rainfall measurements over the course of a day and expand coverage to 45 degrees north and 45 degrees south (the U.S.-Canadian border and almost the tip of South America). But they still don't have a clear picture of higher latitudes toward the poles, especially areas that typically have light rainfall or snow that most satellites, including TRMM, cannot detect.

Enter GPM's Core Observatory at the heart of the new rain-monitoring constellation of satellites. It carries sophisticated instruments that can measure heavy tropical rains near the equator and detect light rain and falling snow near the poles. It will serve as a reference standard for all nine satellites and unify their measurements to provide a global data set that covers the area from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle (65 degrees north and 65 degrees south) every three hours.

The GPM mission was initiated by NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and also includes partnerships with the space agencies of France and India, as well as the agencies that operate meteorological satellites in Europe and the United States. NASA and JAXA are providing the GPM Core Observatory, which will launch from Japan in early 2014.

Explore further: Spaceborne precipitation radar ships from Japan to U.S.

More information: For a behind the scenes look at the making of "For Good Measure," visit:
For more information about the GPM mission visit: or

Related Stories

Spaceborne precipitation radar ships from Japan to U.S.

February 9, 2012

( -- Japanese scientists and engineers have completed construction on a new instrument designed to take 3-D measurements of the shapes, sizes and other physical characteristics of both raindrops and snowflakes. ...

NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission turns 15

November 28, 2012

When it rains it pours, goes the saying, and for the last 15 years, the data on tropical rainfall have poured in. NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) was launched on Nov. 27, 1997, and for the last decade and ...

Handover of Japan-built radar to NASA

April 4, 2012

On March 30, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) officially handed off a new satellite instrument to NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar (DPR) was designed ...

NASA cold weather airborne campaign to measure falling snow

January 13, 2012

Beginning Jan. 17, NASA will fly an airborne science laboratory above Canadian snowstorms to tackle a difficult challenge facing the upcoming Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite mission -- measuring snowfall ...

Recommended for you

Multinationals act on ocean-clogging plastics

January 16, 2017

Forty of the world's biggest companies assembled in Davos agreed on Monday to come up with cleaner ways to make and consume plastic as waste threatens the global eco-system, especially in oceans.

Tracking Antarctic adaptations in diatoms

January 16, 2017

Diatoms are a common type of photosynthetic microorganism, found in many environments from marine to soil; in the oceans, they are responsible for more than a third of the global ocean carbon captured during photosynthesis. ...

Study tracks 'memory' of soil moisture

January 16, 2017

The top 2 inches of topsoil on all of Earth's landmasses contains an infinitesimal fraction of the planet's water—less than one-thousandth of a percent. Yet because of its position at the interface between the land and ...

How the darkness and the cold killed the dinosaurs

January 16, 2017

66 million years ago, the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs started the ascent of the mammals, ultimately resulting in humankind's reign on Earth. Climate scientists have now reconstructed how tiny droplets of sulfuric acid ...

Soil pores, carbon stores, and breathing microbes

January 16, 2017

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) recently studied how moisture influences soil heterotrophic respiration. That's the breathing-like process by which microbes convert dead organic carbon in the ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.