Can this satellite change what we know about clouds, severe weather?


A silent celestial sentry will stand guard 22,300 miles above Florida following a long-awaited decision on where to park the nation’s most powerful weather satellite.

The brainy GOES-16 hurtled into space in November, settling in a limbo between two aging satellites with Atari 2600-era technology.

Following the successful launch, debate began on which of the senior satellites the GOES-16 would replace — the one closer to the Pacific Ocean, or the one stationed at 75 West longitude where it could more closely monitor the tropics.

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GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, and the GOES-R is the latest in a series of GOES satellites that were first launched in 1975. Geostationary means that GOES-R will orbit with the Earth, keeping pace with the planet’s spin.

“If GOES-16 goes into the Pacific, we won’t be able to see that far to the east for the hurricanes. The resolution degrades. The pixels become larger,” Steven Goodman, a senior scientist for the GOES program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an interview earlier this year. “California doesn’t get the frequency of severe weather — tornadoes, hurricanes — and there isn’t as much lightning.”

GOES-16 is equipped with a Geostationary Lightning Mapper — the first of its kind in orbit — that will help determine whether a thunderstorm is deepening by looking at not just cloud-to-ground lightning, but also cloud-to-cloud lightning.

Nascent research has tied bursts of lightning in tropical cyclones to a storm that is undergoing a metamorphosis, including increasing in intensity.

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Last month, NOAA announced GOES-16 would replace GOES East, taking the spot that will be able to see North America and the tropical breeding grounds of nature’s most damaging low pressure systems — hurricanes. The satellite it replaces will go into “orbital storage” where it can be reactivated if needed.

“GOES-16 will be placed in the east position where it can observe the entire continental U.S., and monitor areas most vulnerable to tornadoes, floods, land-falling tropical storms, hurricanes and other severe storms,” said Stephen Volz, director of NOAA’s satellite and information service.

The announcement was made during NOAA’s annual hurricane forecast, where meteorologists said they expect an above average number of storms for the 2017 hurricane season. Hurricane season runs June 1 through November. Acting NOAA Administrator Ben Friedman said the seasonal forecast was not the deciding factor on where to put the satellite. GOES-16 won’t move to 75 West until the fall, although it will be able to help with tropical cyclone predictions until then.

“It was really that this was the most impactful position in the near term and in the short term, we were looking at where the most impactful weather is,” Friedman said.

The GOES series of satellites are identified by letters until they are launched and given numbers. GOES-16 was previously GOES-R.

“That was certainly our preference,” said National Hurricane Center expert James Franklin, about the placement of the satellite. “We obviously wanted to be able to use it for Atlantic hurricanes.”

GOES-16 will scan the Earth five times faster and with four times the resolution of current satellites. It carries the Advanced Baseline Imager — a 16-channel camera built by the Melbourne-based Harris Corp. The current satellites have just five channels.

And while the current satellites take 1,400 scans to capture the Western Hemisphere, the imager can do it in 21. During severe weather, forecasters can home in on particular storms and request scans every 30 seconds.

It’s hoped the rapid refresh of images will help forecasters better predict dangerous weather so that warnings can be issued earlier.

“As a Florida resident, I am particularly proud of the important work NOAA does in weather forecasting and hurricane prediction,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in a statement. “GOES-16’s unmatched detail in observations and other data will improve forecasts, provide considerable benefits to the economy, and help improve public safety.”

Images taken from the GOES-16 are being described as “stunning.”

“Someone used the word ‘stunning,’ and I would say that is a pretty good adjective,” Goodman said. “What blew me out of the water was the spatial resolution. I think this will change our understanding of what we know about clouds and severe weather.”

The next GOES, which has identical technology to GOES-16, is scheduled to launch in spring 2018 and will be placed over the Pacific.

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