As 2004’s Hurricane Charley gorged on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, moisture droplets in its thunderstorms rode raging updrafts high into the atmosphere, freezing and colliding and sparking electricity — lightning.
The potent storm caught forecasters off guard, rapidly intensifying to a 150 mph Category 4 storm just before plowing into Florida’s west coast at maximum strength.
Nascent research has tied bursts of lightning in tropical cyclones to a storm that is undergoing a metamorphosis – including increasing in intensity. And now meteorologists will have more data than ever to diagnose lightning behavior and warn of extreme weather, including hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding rains.
On Saturday, America’s most advanced weather satellite will launch from Cape Canaveral, carrying the first lightning mapper to fly in geostationary orbit. It is one piece of the groundbreaking GOES-R satellite that meteorologists say will revolutionize weather forecasts.
“It’s a game-changer for protecting lives,” said Joe Pica, director of the National Weather Service’s Office of Observations. “We will be able to watch where a storm is intensifying and decaying, and where the weather is going to be dangerous.”
Pica stood Friday morning on a high mound at Kennedy Space Flight Center with the Atlantic to his back and space launch complex 41 far in the distance, where the satellite would soon roll into place. Saturday’s 5:42 p.m. liftoff is expected to be magnificent, with a setting sun as a backup player and a powerful Atlas V rocket slashing silver-gold across the sky.
After two delays — one for Hurricane Matthew, a second for rocket upgrades — he is ready for countdown.
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 and with a focus mostly on North America.
Lockhead Martin designed and built the 6,280-pound spacecraft, which will orbit 22,500 miles above the Earth. The behemoth will be carried into space by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, which has a main engine and four beefy solid rocket boosters – “basically giant sticks of dynamite,” said David Craft, launch weather officer at the 45th Weather Squadron stationed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Craft is watching a dry cold front expected to drift through Florida on Saturday, but he’s not expecting it to upset the weather enough to delay the launch. The weather squadron gives the go-ahead for launch, and is one of only three offices that can kill it.
“As a weather guy, this is one of the best jobs you can have,” Craft said. “You come to work and at the end of the day, you’ve launched a rocket into space.”
If the launch fails and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration loses the satellite, three currently orbiting satellites — GOES East, GOES West and a spare in the center — will remain on the job until the next GOES satellite launches in the spring of 2018.
But the current satellites carry aging technology mainly developed in the 1980s, with minimal improvements made over the years.
“From the start of the GOES program, there have been a couple of channels added, but this is a quantum leap from there,” said Greg Mandt, GOES-R system program director at NOAA. “I think we will be seeing advances that we can’t even anticipate right now.”
GOES-R 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 Corporation. 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 hone in on particular storms and request scans every 30 seconds.
“Instead of waiting three hours to see an image, forecasters will be seeing it in nearly in real time. It will be minutes,” said Stephen Volz, NOAA’s assistant administrator for satellite and information services.
That rapid relay of information is expected to help in hurricane forecasting, where technology still struggles with predicting rapid intensification of storms.
Hurricane Matthew exploded from a Category 1 storm to a 160 mph Category 5 in 24 hours and after forecasters had said they expected only slight strengthening. In a following advisory, forecasters noted that “none of the guidance ever indicated the rapid strengthening of Matthew.”
But forecasters are also eager to learn what the Geostationary Lightning Mapper can do. Currently, lightning is tracked only by ground-based systems, including radar. In the ocean, and out of radar’s reach, they are blind.
John Jensenius, a lightning expert for the National Weather Service, said the new satellite will allow the public to track lightning activity throughout the country and avoid outdoor situations where they may be struck.
Thirty-six people have been killed this year in the U.S. by lightning, the most since 2007, when there were 45 deaths. Seven people were killed in Florida, including two Palm Beach County residents.
A budget of $10.3 billion includes the entire development and life-span operation of GOES-R and three other satellites through 2036.
Once operational, GOES-R will become GOES-16. It will transmit more data in the first six months of operation than all previous GOES weather satellites combined.
“We will see features in the atmosphere that we have never been able to see before,” said Steven Goodman, GOES-R program scientist with NOAA. “We will see waves in clouds that if you’re flying in an airplane may cause turbulence, so we’ll be able to see places to avoid.”
By noon Friday, the Atlas V rocket carrying GOES-R was on the launch pad – a process that takes about 45 minutes – and all systems were go.
“We’re excited,” said Pica, who then echoed an oft-heard phrase Friday. “It’s going to be like going from black-and-white to high-definition TV.”
WHAT GOES-R HAS TO OFFER
• Improved hurricane track and intensity forecasts
• Increased thunderstorm and tornado warning lead time
• Earlier warning of lightning strikes
• Better detection of heavy rainfall and flash flooding
• Improved aviation flight routing
• Better fire detection and intensity estimation
• Better monitor of space weather