UW-Madison team key to development of weather satellite

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The first images were breathtaking, like going from black and white to high definition color television.

When a weather satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral in November, scientists working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison watched anxiously as the rocket exploded into the sky, knowing decades of work was heading skyward. On Monday, the first images from GOES-16, an acronym for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, were released in a collective blast from the meteorological community.

“It was a ‘wow,'” said Tim Schmit, a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration satellite researcher who has worked on GOES-16 with researchers at UW’s Space Science and Engineering Center since 1999.

“For years we’ve been working and saying it’s gonna be awesome, we’ll have more spectral bands and more spatial resolution. But when I finally saw it, it was definitely a ‘wow’ factor for me,” said Schmit. in a Tuesday afternoon telephone interview from the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in Seattle.

The $1.2 billion NOAA satellite has been called a game changer in weather forecasting. The first of four satellites slated for launch over the next few years, GOES-16 sports an Earth-facing camera that can scan half the planet every 15 minutes, the continental United States every five minutes and targeted regional areas every 30 seconds. in true color.

Located 22,300 miles above Earth, GOES-16 can focus on hurricanes, wildfires, erupting volcanoes and storms, giving forecasters lightning-fast information. It also has a super cool lightning tracker that constantly monitors lightning strikes, not just from clouds on the ground but higher up in the atmosphere, to alert people during outdoor events of dangerous conditions a lot faster and more accurately.

The images are much sharper than previous weather satellites and can better detect not only clouds, but also smoke, water vapor and volcanic ash in the air that could affect flights.

A first look at NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite images of Earth

“The aviation community will be able to plan flights better. Air quality alerts will be improved. We will have better information about wildfires, heavy rains and flash floods,” said Mike Pavolonis, a NOAA physicist who works at the Cooperative Institute for Weather Satellite Studies at UW.

Madison scientists were involved in translating the wishes of the weather service into the satellite’s hardware and in developing computer simulations to show how the satellite might operate. An integral part of the new satellite is to translate all the raw data passing through GOES-16 into information that can be used by meteorologists trying to determine whether tomorrow will be sunny or rainy.

Hundreds of gigabytes of data are sent daily from GOES-16 via receivers atop the Space Science and Engineering Center, not far from Camp Randall Stadium. Once fully operational later this year, signals from the satellite will be translated into information that forecasters can use to improve their forecasts and monitor storms.

UW experts helped write scientific algorithms to “translate an incredible volume of data and distill it into data that meteorologists can use to make an accurate forecast,” Pavolonis said.

While it may seem strange that an Upper Midwestern town, far from hurricanes and tsunamis, should be the center of weather satellite research, it’s mainly because of Verner Suomi, one of the first professors meteorology at UW. Suomi, who died in 1995, is known as the father of satellite meteorology. He founded the Space Science and Engineering Center, which developed the first weather satellite to provide images from geostationary orbit.

Today, UW scientists have been instrumental in the latest technologies to improve weather forecasting.

“It will definitely save lives. There’s no doubt about it,” Schmit said. “Being able to increase lead time in severe weather, better watch for hurricanes, and watch for volcanic eruptions will save lives.”

The first stunning images from the latest geostationary weather satellite.
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