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Satellites Launched From Vandenberg AFB Provide Eyes in the Sky on Thomas Fire

Newest weather spacecraft captures Thomas Fire images within a month of reaching space

The first light images from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) aboard the nation’s newest polar-orbiting satellite captures smoke from the Thomas Fire burning not far from Vandenberg Air Force Base where the spacecraft launched in November. Click to view larger
The first light images from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) aboard the nation’s newest polar-orbiting satellite captures smoke from the Thomas Fire burning not far from Vandenberg Air Force Base where the spacecraft launched in November. (NOAA Visualization Lab and NEDIS/STAR photo )

The nation’s newest weather satellite sent back its first image showing smoke from the massive Thomas Fire, less than a month after heading to space from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The just-released image is one of the several captured of the Thomas Fire, many taken by satellites that launched from the Santa Barbara County installation.

The Thomas Fire sparked Dec. 4 in Ventura County and quickly exploded to become fourth-largest blaze in California's recent history, burning into Santa Barbara County and reaching 252,500 acres Friday. 

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released the first image captured by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument aboard the Joint Polar Satellite System, dubbed JPSS-1.

A Delta II rocket carrying the satellite blasted off Nov. 18 from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County. 

Now renamed NOAA-20, the satellite’s five instruments, including VIIRS, have undergone a serious of activation and checkouts before the craft can be declared fully operational near its 3-month anniversary of circling Earth. 

The VIIRS instrument, which officials said provides environmental intelligence, has other ties to Santa Barbara. 

Raytheon’s now-closed Santa Barbara Remote Sensing, which was located in Goleta, designed VIIRS which combines the capabilities of four sensors into one highly capable instrument, a spokeswoman said.

Additionally, Raytheon Vision Systems, located in Goleta, builds the focal planes for VIIRS.

This image of the Thomas Fire on Dec. 10, from the NASA Worldview website, was created using layered data from several satellites that launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Click to view larger
This image of the Thomas Fire on Dec. 10, from the NASA Worldview website, was created using layered data from several satellites that launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team, GSFC)

During a pre-launch press conference last month at Vandenberg AFB for the new weather satellite, a Cal Fire representative spoke about how satellite data assists firefighting commanders.

“As an end user of all the products that these people make, we base almost all of our decisions, as far as strategically and operationally, on the weather,” said Jana Luis, division chief of predictive services at the CalFire Sacramento headquarters. “So having current and accurate weather is huge to us.”

Fire commanders use satellite data in daily briefings, or even more often, and consider it when deciding whether to boost staffing due to a weather event, such high winds or extremely hot temperatures.

Her comments came approximately a month after the Oct. 8 fires that sparked in Northern California and three weeks before the Thomas Fire started burning in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

For the October blaze, fire commanders had a couple of days of notice about the historical weather event, boosting staffing essentially in the entire state.

Once operational, the NOAA-20 satellite is expected to improve weather forecasts and other data compared to older craft.

“When you compare the new generation with the older NOAA polar generation it’s a really big difference. It’s enormous,” said Mitch Goldberg, NOAA chief program scientist for JPSS.”It’s like going from old TVs to HDTV, high definition, so it’s a big difference and will have a big impact.”

An image from the Aqua satellite, which launched from Vandenberg Air Force base, shows Thomas Fire smoke on Dec. 12 stretching from Santa Barbara all the way to Oregon and Washington. Click to view larger
An image from the Aqua satellite, which launched from Vandenberg Air Force base, shows Thomas Fire smoke on Dec. 12 stretching from Santa Barbara all the way to Oregon and Washington.  (NASA courtesy image)

Older Earth-science satellites, including Aqua, which launched in 2002, and Terra, which headed to space in 1999, also have captured Thomas Fire smoke. Both of those craft also launched from Vandenberg as part of a system to give Planet Earth a checkup, officials said at the time.

NASA’s images can be found in several locations online including under a gallery labeled “Fire and Smoke,” where even International Space Station astronaut Randy Bresnik last week noted the huge plume below. 

The NASA Worldview site also allows people to use an application to interactively browse global satellite imagery within hours of acquisition featuring data from  instruments aboard Suomi NPP, Aqua and Terra satellites. Suomi NPP, which launched in 2011 from Vandenberg, is a predecessor to NOAA-20.

In a blog on Discover magazine’s website, Tom Yulsman noted he had seen many satellite images of fires before, but Thomas Fire images still stood out.

“Even so, when I first saw the thick smoke obscuring about a 50-mile swath of the coast and pouring out far over the Pacific, I gasped out loud,” Yulsman wrote.

“I’m not saying that to be overly dramatic. It’s just true. Perhaps I reacted in that way because I’ve spent quite a lot of time down there along that beautiful strand. So I can well imagine what it must be like under that appalling pall of smoke.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of the Thomas Fire on Dec. 13. Actively burning areas detected by MODIS’s thermal bands are outlined in red. Such hot spots are diagnostic for fire when they are accompanied by smoke.  These hot spots are accompanied by copious amounts of smoke coming off the fire and trending northward as shown in this NASA image, courtesy of the NASA Worldview application operated by the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Science Data and Information System project. Click to view larger
NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of the Thomas Fire on Dec. 13. Actively burning areas detected by MODIS’s thermal bands are outlined in red. Such hot spots are diagnostic for fire when they are accompanied by smoke.  These hot spots are accompanied by copious amounts of smoke coming off the fire and trending northward as shown in this NASA image, courtesy of the NASA Worldview application operated by the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Earth Science Data and Information System project.  (NASA courtesy image )

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