Blast Off! New GOES-R Satellite Lasers In On Weather, Lightning And Solar Violence

In this time exposure photo, we see the launch of the GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) satellite last night at 6:42 p.m. from Cape Canaveral. It will be sent into geostationary orbit where it will monitor weather in the western hemisphere with unprecedented "sharp eye." Credit: United Launch Alliance
In this time exposure photo, we see the launch of the GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) satellite last night at 6:42 p.m. from Cape Canaveral. GOES-R, a collaborative effort between NOAA and NASA, will be sent into geostationary orbit where it will monitor weather in the western hemisphere in unprecedented detail and across many colors of the rainbow spectrum. The satellite Credit: United Launch Alliance

The weather is endlessly fascinating and touches us all. Every new day, we decide what to wear outside based on a forecast. Now a new satellite will make that decision a little easier.

Weather satellites such as the current GOES-8 East and GOES-8 West satellites track weather fronts and the progress of storms across the western hemisphere from space. They circle Earth from geostationary orbit  22,300 miles (35,890 km) above our heads, where their speeds match that of the rotating Earth, providing an unblinking view of a particular region of the planet. Every night on TV, forecasters use GOES photos to show us the movements of clouds, approaching storms and the like.

This is photo of the western hemisphere taken this morning at 9:45 a.m. CST by the GOES-8 East weather satellite. Credit: NOAA
This is photo of the western hemisphere taken this morning at 9:45 a.m. CST by the GOES-8 East weather satellite. Credit: NOAA

But they’ll soon be history. Last night, an Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the first of a new generation of weather satellites. Named GOES-R, the shiny new bird will provide continuous photos and atmospheric measurements of the western hemisphere, lightning data, and space weather monitoring at an unprecedented level of detail and speed.

The new GOES-R satellites will provide a wealth of new information in four categories:
The new GOES-R satellites will provide a wealth of new information in four categories: photos in both visible and infrared light, lightning in clouds, solar flare detection and monitoring space weather. Credit: NOAA

Whereas the current GOES satellites scan the full hemisphere in 26 minutes, the new GOES-R units will simultaneously scan the Western Hemisphere every 15 minutes, the continental U.S. every 5 minutes and areas of severe weather every 30 seconds. Instead of seeing what the weather was doing 30 minutes ago, we’ll soon be able to follow it in near-real time, making for more accurate and reliable weather forecasts. And with its spanking new cameras, GOES-R images will have 4x greater resolution than those taken by the current GOES.

Artist's view of the GOES-R satellite in orbit. It uses
Artist’s view of the GOES-R satellite in orbit. It, along with It uses solar panels to produce the electricity needed to run its instruments. The satellite lifted off the launch pad on Nov. 19. When GOES-R reaches orbit in about two weeks, it will be renamed GOES-16. Three identical copies — GOES S, T and U — are scheduled to launch in 2018, 2019 and 2024, respectively. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

With all the changes in both storm and drought intensities wrought by climate change, we need as much information as soon as we can get it! The new GOES eyes-in-the-sky will also support seasonal predictions, drought outlooks, improve hurricane tracking, provide increased tornado warning lead time and even monitor space weather events that can spark those hoped-for auroras. This baby does it all using a suite of six instruments that include a solar ultraviolet camera and a lightning mapper.

GOES-R will keep watch on space weather events and solar flares like this one that erupted on the sun on May 5, 2015. Credit: NASA
GOES-R will keep watch on space weather events and solar flares like this one that erupted on the sun on May 5, 2015. Credit: NASA

Currently, weather forecasters can use lightning data provided by a ground-based network that can only detect cloud-to-ground flashes. The GOES-R satellites will have the capability to detect both cloud-to-ground and cloud-to-cloud lightning across the western hemisphere grabbing data at the rate of 200 times a second! This will help weather forecasters to identify thunderstorms which are rapidly intensifying, so they can issue accurate and timely severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings.

Cloud to cloud lightning, seen here in this photo taken over Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge and Park Point, will be tracked by GOES-R. Credit: Daniel Thralow
Cloud-to-cloud lightning, seen here in this photo taken over Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge and Park Point, will be tracked by GOES-R and soon supplement the evening weather forecasts. Credit: Daniel Thralow

GOES satellites have been monitoring Earth’s weather from on high since the launch of GOES-1 in October 1975. The current pair, GOES-East and GOES-West (along with a third “spare”), takes pictures in five different spectral colors in visible and infrared light. Infrared photos allow forecasters and the public to see where clouds are at night. The new GOES-R series can “see” in 16 different spectral bands, including two visible light channels, four near-infrared channels, and ten additional infrared channels. GOES S, T and U, which are copies of the GOES-R, will launch in 2018, 2019 and 2024, respectively, keeping track of all things meteorological through 2036.

A revolution has begun far over our heads, the results of which we’ll soon see on TV forecasts and in lives saved during severe weather events.