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Don Paul: Revolutionary new weather satellite will be a game-changer

If not for Hurricane Matthew, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA would by now have in place a revolutionary new weather satellite: the GOES-R. But will GOES-R be “one giant leap for mankind?”

If not for mankind, the answer is yes for meteorologists, solar physicists, emergency planners, transportation safety and efficiency.

The current operational geostationary operational satellite (GOES) — which is getting closer to the end of its useful service life — takes 30 minutes to scan the western hemisphere, any sector of which then can be zoomed in on for greater detail. However, detail is lost when those zooms are routinely used, and a lot can happen in 30 minutes with fast-developing storm systems and outbreaks.

The GOES-R will scan the hemisphere every five minutes, with four times greater resolution on three times more channels for gathering and disseminating information. In the event of local severe weather outbreaks (read: tornadic thunderstorms), a scan can be zoomed and completed every 30 seconds, which is much faster than Doppler radar scans.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V first stage for GOES-R is lifted to the vertical position inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The first stage of the Atlas V rocket holds the fuel and oxygen tanks that feed the engine for ascent and powers the spacecraft into orbit. GOES-R will launch aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket in November. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V first stage for GOES-R is lifted to the vertical position inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The first stage of the Atlas V rocket holds the fuel and oxygen tanks that feed the engine for ascent and powers the spacecraft into orbit. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)

This next-generation satellite was originally scheduled to launch at the beginning of November. But then Hurricane Matthew came within 30 to 40 miles of Cape Canaveral, delaying launch because of protective steps that had to be taken to shield this expensive leap forward. As of Sunday, the launch is now scheduled to take place Nov. 19.

When GOES-R is live, the quality and rapidity of the data and its arrival will make forecasting better in every way, in both short- and medium-time ranges. It will improve data input into the National Weather Service suite of computer models. It will make such bad decision-making as cruise line misjudgments in sailing into dangerous tropical and nontropical cyclones less likely. It will aid the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane and Storm Prediction Centers work to become more accurate and timely, as well as that of local forecast offices’ meteorologists and private-sector meteorologists like me.

GOES-R will also include the first operational lightning mapper in space. This will bring real-time information not only on cloud-to-ground strikes, but cloud-to-cloud lightning as well. The latter is what charges the atmosphere. As NOAA and NASA research shows, an increase in lightning activity is often a signal that storms are intensifying and tornado formation is becoming more likely. There will also be a great improvement in fog detection with a new on-board tool.

Some of you may have read my article on space weather and its potentially grave risks to the power grid in October. GOES-R will improve our detection of coronal mass ejections and flares. It includes constant monitoring of solar activity in addition to its earth imagery. You can learn more about space weather detection in this video:

Yes, meteorologists and solar physicists are stoked about this upcoming launch a little later in the month. We’re always looking for ways to improve our predictive skills, and GOES-R will surely help. But I don’t think GOES-R can do much for pundits and pollsters, gang.

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