Processing satellite data: CSPP embodies community effort

Day/Night image of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Credit: CIMSS.

Day/Night image of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Credit: CIMSS.

The next few years promise multiple milestones in satellite science, as next-generation geostationary satellite GOES-R is set to launch in 2016, followed by the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1), a collaboration between NASA and NOAA that will be the second in a three-part series of environmental satellites, beginning with the launch of Suomi NPP in 2011.

With this eventful era on the horizon, Earth and space scientists across the globe are in preparation mode, educating themselves on the new technologies and advanced capabilities these satellites will bring.

For the multidisciplinary, collaborative team working on the Community Satellite Processing Package (CSPP) at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), these advancements will mean vastly more, higher-quality data to be processed for its users.

Based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and funded by JPSS, the mission of CSPP is to package and distribute free, open-source satellite science software, as well as provide training for local applications of the software. The communities it supports are twofold, mainly direct-broadcast meteorologists and environmental satellite scientists—global users that process satellite data for research or regional, real-time applications. Essentially, any organization with a receiving station can obtain and use satellite data at no cost, a main tenet of the project.

Already, CSPP has played a significant role in processing Suomi NPP data: Its software packages are used for processing a variety of raw, sensor, and environmental data records from instruments such as VIIRS, MODIS, AIRS, CrIS, ATMS, AMSU, IASI, and AVHRR. For the CSPP team, getting to this level has required years of groundwork.

CSPP can trace its lineage to 1982, when CIMSS scientists developed the International TOVS Processing Package (ITPP). This first-generation processing package, led by former UW-Madison professor and inaugural CIMSS director Bill Smith, dealt with an important set of instruments onboard NOAA’s TIROS satellite series, called the TIROS Operational Vertical Sounder (TOVS). Then came an advanced version of TOVS, called A-TOVS, and ITPP became the International ATOVS Processing Package, or IAPP.

By the 1990s, the package incorporated two new NASA sensors, becoming the system of choice and named the International MODIS and AIRS Processing Package (IMAPP). The success of IMAPP, with more than 1,900 registered users from more than 90 countries, is what solidified the foundation for development of a community-oriented, real-time processing capability that could harness the technological advancements of NOAA’s operational polar-orbiting weather satellites for years to come, Huang said.

It was not until 2011, with the launch of Suomi NPP, that CSPP adopted its current acronym. CIMSS scientist Allen Huang, who is PI for the project, says the new name embraces the collaborative, community-oriented spirit of the project.

“Instead of focusing on a particular sensor, we wanted to emphasize that this is a collective, partnership effort,” Huang said. “Our rich heritage is based on the strong support of NASA and NOAA over many years.”

Satellites transmit unprocessed, raw data to scientists who may process them down to different levels: At level 1, data such as visible, infrared, and color composite images are ready to be used by those less familiar with satellite operations. Level 2 data are usable products from several instruments, such as temperature, water vapor, aerosols, particulate matter, and sea-surface and land-surface temperatures, as well as derived products such as cloud thickness, precipitation, and soil moisture. By level 3, data are ready for weather nowcasting, nearcasting, forecasting, and air quality monitoring applications, and users such as the National Weather Service (NWS) are able to incorporate all three levels into their routine operations to make forecasts.

“The goal is to make satellite data meaningful, in order to make accurate forecasts,” Huang said.

The software is so powerful that it can produce up to 35 products in 10 minutes, keeping pace with near-real-time satellite observations, he added.

Huang described a system that CSPP/IMAPP installed on the campus of East China Normal University, located in the city center of Shanghai, China — what the CSPP team calls a turn-key, end-to-end system.

“We deliver this one solution, put it in, turn the key, everything works,” he said.

This example is a testament to what such a system can do for research and education, as well as local environmental and weather monitoring and forecasting, he added.

“They have everything they need to make a weather forecast in the next three hours, six hours, up to three days later,” said Huang. “Information about wind temperature, precipitation, and more is all automatic.”

CSPP has had 26 releases since 2011, and three more are in the works, including NUCAPS, a NOAA retrieval package for hyper-spectral sounders; support for the IAPP retrieval package; and ASCPO, a NOAA package that produces sea-surface temperature retrievals from a number of imagers.

“These packages produce the same output products using the same science algorithm for a number of different instruments,” said CIMSS scientist Kathy Strabala, who has worked on processing packages since the project’s early days in 1999.

The team is also working to make Microwave Integrated Retrieval System (MIRS) microwave products from NOAA available to CSPP direct broadcast users, particularly NWS forecasters, starting in Hawaii.

“We are really focused on the end users. The main goal is to make the data useful to people,” Strabala said.

In addition to these releases, new updates are ongoing. An update to the CLAVR-x cloud and land-surface retrieval software, released in May 2014, is coming soon, Huang says, which will have more suites of products, a faster interface, and more reliability.

“New releases are based on the priorities we hear from users,” he said.

The general philosophy for CSPP, Huang said, is building software that is easy to install, operate, verify, and run, and to provide training, support, and updates that are just as user-oriented and efficient. The CSPP team conducts training workshops around the world, on all five continents, the most recent of which was the CSPP IMAPP workshop in Madison. In April 2015, there will also be a users’ group meeting in Germany, which will allow the team to interact with users from around the globe, and get feedback on possible improvements.

“We want our product to benefit society,” Huang said. “It should be useful not only to our own community but society at large.”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Through the Atmosphere.