The United States will launch its most advanced weather satellite yet

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GOES-R can take an image every 30 seconds and will improve responses to severe storms.

The main optical instrument of the GOES-R satellite is tested near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Credit: Ben Smegelsky/NASA

The most scientifically capable weather satellite the United States has ever launched is set to go into orbit on November 19. From its vantage point 35,800 kilometers away, nearly a tenth of the way to the moon, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series will take images of weather and atmospheric phenomena as they cross the states -United.

GOES-R can take photos as often as every 30 seconds, much faster than the minute intervals of current GOES weather satellites. This rapid-fire imagery allows the satellite to track the progress of thunderstorms, hurricanes and other severe storms. It also allows meteorologists to track plumes of wildfire smoke or volcanic ash as they spread. And it helps emergency responders better prepare for where to deploy resources as a storm moves forward, says Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service.

The next-generation satellite can also take pictures in sharper focus and in a wider wavelength range than current GOES satellites. “It’s like going from black and white to super high-definition television,” says Stephen Volz, deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, Maryland.

GOES-R is comparable to Japan Meteorological Agency Satellite Himawari-8, launched in 2014, and Himawari-9, launched on November 1. All carry an advanced imaging instrument that observes the Earth in 16 different wavelength bands, ranging from visible to near infrared, for different views of atmospheric phenomena. Already, the images produced by Himawari-8 allow meteorologists to accurately measure the spread of pollutants across East Asia1.

American meteorologists tested the new forecasting capabilities of GOES-R with the two GOES satellites (there are always two operational at any given time: one positioned over the eastern United States and one over the west). At various times over the past few years, including during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, NOAA switched one of the GOES into an experimental super-fast scan mode that refreshed data as fast as every minute.

By examining this test data, forecasters could better identify the beginnings of strong atmospheric mixing, a precursor to severe storms.2and track wildfires as they grow – sometimes dispatching firefighters before anyone even calls for help3. Other tests tracked the onset and breakdown of fog at major airports, helping flight controllers more efficiently route planes in and out.

GOES-R also has other jobs. It carries a suite of updated space weather instruments to measure particles from solar outbursts. It also has a sophisticated lightning catalog mapper flashes day and night every 20 seconds or faster.

All this technology comes at a price: almost $11 billion in total for GOES-R and the three similar satellites that will follow it sequentially until 2036.

After launch, GOES-R will enter temporary orbit while operators calibrate its instruments. Then NOAA will guide it to a permanent position on the eastern or western part of the country.

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The references

  1. Yumimoto, K. et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/2016GL069298 (2016).

  2. Line, US, Schmit, TJ, Lindsey, DT & Goodman, SJ Weather and forecast 31483-494 (2016).

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  3. Lindley, TT et al. J. Meteor operational. 4182-191 (2016).

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Witze, A. US to launch its most advanced weather satellite to date.
Nature (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2016.20970

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