ceilometer (sēlŏmˈĭtər) [key], in aviation and meteorology, automatic instrument used to record ceiling, i.e., the altitude of the lowest cloud layer covering more than half of the sky. The ceilometer consists essentially of a projector, a detector, and a recorder. The projector emits an intense beam of light into the sky. The detector, located at a fixed distance from the projector, uses a photoelectric cell to detect the projected light when it is reflected from clouds. In the fixed-beam ceilometer, the light is beamed vertically into the sky by the projector and the detector is aligned at various angles to intercept the reflected light; in the rotating-beam ceilometer, the detector is positioned vertically and the light projected at various angles. In either case, trigonometry is used to determine the altitude of the clouds reflecting the light from a knowledge of the angle at which the light is detected and the distance between the projector and detector. The recorder is calibrated to indicate cloud height directly. False readings from extraneous light sources are reduced by modulating the projected light beam so that it can be recognized when it is reflected.
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