Eyes on the prize
Earth got its first artificial satellite 60 years ago, when the 1957 launch of a beeping ball named Sputnik kicked off the Space Age. Thousands of other, fancier satellites have followed since, and about 1,400 are operational today, including a variety of cool scientific tools like space telescopes. Yet while these science satellites often focus outward, using their height for a better view of the universe, Earth's orbit also offers a vital view of something else: Earth itself.
Earth-observing satellites now play many important, even life-saving roles around the world, and some of the most powerful are managed by two U.S. agencies: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). These satellites perform some well-known services, like helping us predict and track dangerous storms, but also provide a wide range of lesser-known benefits. And given recent reports of potentially dramatic budget cuts for NOAA's satellite division — along with similar concerns about NASA's Earth Observatory — maybe those benefits are a little too lesser-known.
To shed more light on why U.S. Earth-observing satellites are so valuable, and why we need so many of them, here's a closer look at some of the satellites and what they actually do.