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Lack of data on rain hinders El Nino forecasts

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Will global warming really spark global catastrophe? How much damage will El Nino cause? Which areas of the Earth will be most affected by such climatic events, and when?

One of the stumbling blocks scientists face in answering such questions turns out to be an inadequate understanding of rain.Inaccurate and incomplete data about rainfall and its atmospheric consequences, especially in the tropics, where more than two-thirds of the Earth's precipitation occurs, are major obstacles to improving the complex supercomputer models that are used for global climate forecasting.

This week, in a notably harmonious collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Japan's space agency, a special weather satellite specifically designed for climate research will be launched from an island in southern Japan.

The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, known by the acronym TRMM, consists of a U.S.-built satellite observatory carrying a Japanese-built precipitation radar device - the first ever designed to measure rainfall from space - as well as four other specialized instruments.

The entire 7,920-pound, $700-million package will blast off aboard a Japanese H-II rocket, the launch engine for Japan's increasingly cutting-edge space program, on Wednesday from the Japanese space center at Tanegashima, off the southern coast of Kyushu.

Japan is launching another satellite aboard the same rocket to do research on robotics, said Mamoru Endo, manager of the policy department at the National Space Development Agency of Japan, or NASDA.

The satellite, which is the result of more than 10 years of cooperation between the United States and Japan, will be able to observe and measure the effects of such events as this year's unusually strong El Nino and the Indonesian forest fires that have blanketed much of the region in haze, said Tasuku Tanaka, director of the Earth Observation Research Center at NASDA. Among other things, the data will improve forecast of the arrival of Asian monsoons.