This is what Earth looks like from America’s most advanced weather satellite

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Nearly three months after its launch into space, the latest US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather satellite, called GOES-17, sent us its first official images of our planet. The incredible views, which were captured on May 20 and made public today, were taken even as the satellite encounters problems with one of its instruments.

GOES-17 went to work with GOES-16, another NOAA weather satellite that was launched in 2016. The two probes, which are part of the so-called GOES-R series, are capable of sweeping most of the Western Hemisphere from the African coast to New Zealand. Their observations 22,300 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) above Earth are essential for monitoring hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, lighting and fog. Both spacecraft also give us unobstructed views of our planet.

NOAA has released the first image taken by its latest weather satellite, GOES-17.
Photo: NOAA/NASA

The latest snapshots of the Western Hemisphere were taken by a GOES-17 instrument called the Advanced Basic Imager (ABI), which scans the planet in 16 spectral bands, including visible, infrared and near-infrared channels. All of these bands allow scientists to observe the movement and temperature of different types of clouds at greater depth than previous satellites, leading to better extreme weather predictions.

The ABI on GOES-17, however, has some issues. Its cooling system is not working properly. That’s a problem because the ABI’s infrared channel detectors “must be cooled in order to fully detect incoming infrared radiation from Earth,” says Jordan Gerth, research meteorologist at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin, in an email to The edge. Infrared radiation is needed to detect clouds at night when sunlight does not reflect off the clouds and returns to space. But if the ABI’s detectors heat up, “there is a significant degradation in imaging quality,” says Gerth.

Experts from NOAA and NASA, as well as other industry players, are trying to solve the problem, which affects 13 of the spectral bands. Today’s photos show that, despite the problem with the cooling system, the ABI can take in unobstructed views of the Western Hemisphere. The images were captured using two visible channels and one near-infrared channel which are unaffected by the cooling system malfunction. An infrared band included in the photos is “only functional during part of the day”, NOAA said in a press release.

Gerth says other test images were taken by GOES-17, “but these were taken before the necessary calibration could take place. Some images also did not have the full disk illuminated.

The satellite is still in the test phase and will not become fully operational until the end of 2018. If the cooling system cannot be repaired, the team will “investigate alternative concepts and different modes to maximize the operational utility of this ABI,” Stephen Volz, deputy administrator of satellite and information services for NOAA, said during a press briefing last week.

In the meantime, I hope we get more photos of planet Earth in all its glory.

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