Sixty Years of Earth Observations: from Explorer-1 (1958) to CYGNSS (2017)

  • Released Wednesday, January 31, 2018
  • Updated Friday, August 24, 2018 at 1:14PM
  • ID: 4600

January 31 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Explorer-1 spacecraft and 60 years of Earth observations from space. This visualization shows the orbits of NASA-related near-Earth science missions from the launch of Explorer-1 in 1958 through 2017. These missions include both NASA-run missions as well as missions run by organizations that NASA has partnered with. Twenty-four of these missions are called out as "firsts" in various ways.

Here's a link to a version on youtube

The following missions are highlighted in green as "firsts":
  • Explorer-1 first satellite launched by US
  • Vanguard-1 first solar-powered satellite
  • Tiros-1 first weather satellite
  • Nimbus-1 first in series that provided 30 years of Earth observations
  • ATS-1: Applications Technology Satellite first full-disk Earth images from geosynchronous orbit
  • Apollo-8 first humans to orbit Moon; Earthrise photo
  • Landsat-1 first in a series providing continuous coverage of Earth's land
  • Skylab first combined active/passive microwave sensor (RADSCAT)
  • Seasat-1 first oceanographic satellite
  • ERBS: Earth Radiation Budget Satellite ozone data was key in Montreal Protocol Agreement
  • TOPEX/Poseidon: Ocean Topography Experiment first in a series providing continuous record of global sea levels
  • SeaWiFS: Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor first to measure global biosphere
  • TRMM: Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission first 3-d views of storms from space
  • Terra first spacecraft of Earth Observing System (EOS)
  • SRTM: Shuttle Radar Topography Mission first near-global data set of land elevations
  • GRACE: Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment first mission to map Earth's gravity field over time
  • Aqua first spacecraft in Afternoon train (A-train)
  • ICESat: Ice, Cloud,and land Elevation Satellite first continuous laser-altimetry of Antarctic/Greenland ice sheets
  • CALIPSO: Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation first global survey of cloud and aerosol profiles from 2 spacecraft
  • Cloudsat synergistic cloud observations from 2 spacecraft
  • Aquarius first dedicated sea surface salinity measurements
  • GPM: Global Precipitation Measurement first near-global precipitation observations
  • OCO-2: Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 first high-precision global measurements of CO2
  • SMAP: Soil Moisture Passive Active first NASA soil moisture satellite
  • DSCOVR: Deep Space Climate Observatory first continuous daytime observations from L1

    Other missions that are not highlighted:
  • CYGNSS-1-8: Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System 1
  • Aura
  • GOES 1 - 16: Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites
  • ISS: International Space Station
  • Jason 2
  • Jason 3
  • LAGEOSLaser Geodynamic Satellite
  • Landsat 7
  • Landsat 8
  • QuikSCATQuick Scatterometer
  • SORCE: Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment
  • Suomi NPP: Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership
  • Explorer-3
  • Explorer-4
  • Explorer-6
  • Explorer-7
  • Explorer-8
  • Explorer-9
  • Explorer-12
  • Nimbus-2
  • Nimbus-3
  • Nimbus-4
  • Nimbus-5
  • Nimbus-6
  • Nimbus-7
  • CINDI>: Coupled Ion-Neutral Dynamics Investigation
  • Vanguard-2
  • Vanguard-3
  • SMS-1: Synchronous Meteorological Satellite-1
  • SMS-2: Synchronous Meteorological Satellite-2
  • EO-1: Earth Observing mission 1)
  • EUVE: Extreme-Ultraviolet Explorer
  • Jason-1
  • Landsat-2
  • Landsat-3
  • Landsat-4
  • Landsat-5
  • UARS: Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite
  • EP-TOMS: Earth Probe Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer
  • TIROS-2: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-2
  • TIROS-3: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-3
  • TIROS-4: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-4
  • TIROS-5: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-5
  • TIROS-6: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-6
  • TIROS-7: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-7
  • TIROS-8: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-8
  • TIROS-9: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-9
  • TIROS-10: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-10
  • TIROS-M: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-N
  • TIROS-N: Television and InfraRed Observation Satellite-M
  • ATS-2: Applications Technology Satellite-2
  • ATS-3: Applications Technology Satellite-3
  • ATS-4: Applications Technology Satellite-4
  • ATS-6: Applications Technology Satellite-6
  • DE-1: Dynamics Explorer-1
  • DE-2: Dynamics Explorer-2
  • STS-2: Space Shuttle Office of Space and Terrestrial Application
  • SAGE: Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment

    Also included:
  • Stars
  • Moon
  • Sun
  • Earth
  • L1: Sun-Earth Lagrange Point-1

    The clouds used in this version are from a high resolution GEOS model run at 10 minute time steps interpolated down to the per-frame level.

    There are 3 clocks (date/time) driving different aspects of this visualization:
  • the progession of the orbits as they move around the Earth
  • the timeline at the top which also drives the exposure of orbits
  • Apollo-8 and the moon

  • Explorer-1 only - this version is the full camera path of the previous versions, but only showing Explorer-1 (and Apollo-8). This is intended to provide video editors extra footage showing Explorer-1.

    Earth observing spacecraft with all spacecraft shown from Explorer-1 to CYGNSS. This is intended to provide video editors extra footage showing all Earth observing spacecraft.


    Please give credit for this item to:
    NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

    Datasets used in this visualization

    CelesTrak Spacecraft Orbit Ephemeris
    GEOS Atmospheric Model
    Model | NASA GMAO
    GTOPO30 Topography and Bathymetry
    Data Compilation | USGS
    JPL/Horizon Orbital Ephemerides
    Ephemeris | NASA/JPL
    Space-Track TLE (A.K.A. Space-Track Two-Line Elements)
    Ephemeris | NORAD

    Satellite ephemerides

    Dataset can be found at:

    See more visualizations using this data set
    Hipparcos Tycho Catalogue (A.K.A. Tycho 2 Catalogue) (Collected with the Telescope sensor)

    Note: While we identify the data sets used in these visualizations, we do not store any further details nor the data sets themselves on our site.

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