It’s lightning like you’ve never seen it before: streamed, 24/7, from space.
On 19 November at 5:42 p.m. EST, an Atlas V rocket will launch the US’s most advanced weather satellite yet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have packed the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) full of scientific instruments that will improve weather prediction around the US and in space.
GOES-R will be fired into a geosynchronous orbit 36,000 kilometres above Earth. The journey should take around 3.5 hours, after which it will unfold its solar panels. The satellite will then scan the western hemisphere every 15 minutes and the continental US every 5 minutes. Areas of severe weather will be given special attention with scans every 30 to 60 seconds.
“On-board is the world’s first lightning mapper to make it into geostationary orbit,” says William Koshak at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, who helped develop the instrument. The lightning mapper will detect lightning within clouds, from one cloud to another, and between the clouds and the ground across the American continent.
Thunderstorms and tropical cyclones tend to show increased lightning activity before they can be picked up by radar, so GOES-R will be able to give weather forecasters a much needed heads-up.
Previously, lightning mappers have made only made it into low Earth orbits, which are out of sync with the spinning of the Earth. “This means that we will be able to get continuous, 24/7 monitoring. We’ve never had that before,” says Koshak.
The GOES-R satellite will also help to detect distress signals from aircrafts, ships, or personal devices. It should be able to pick up a signal from almost anywhere in the world and then relay it back to a search and rescue team.
Whilst GOES-R is looking down on Earth, it will also keep watch in the other direction. It will have UV and X-ray sensors pointed at the sun to keep an eye on solar flares, which can interfere with GPS. It will also carry a suite of space weather sensors that will collect data to help understand the possible hazards for astronauts and scientists.
GOES-R is the latest satellite in the GOES system that is currently used by NOAA’s National Weather Service.