Daily weather forecasts in the U.S. wouldn't be nearly as accurate as they are without the three geostationary weather satellites that are parked 22,000 miles above Earth. Next month these predictions will get even better: the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA plan to launch the first of four satellites that should deliver what the agencies call “game-changing” capabilities for predicting both ordinary weather and dangerous storms such as hurricanes. These next-generation spacecraft are needed to replace the existing weather satellites, one of which reaches the end of its operational lifetime this year.
The new Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) will have the ability to scan for signs of rain, snow and lightning in the clouds above the entire continental U.S. every five minutes and to take smaller, focused images of problem areas every 30 seconds. By comparison, the older versions of GOES take images of the continental U.S. every 30 minutes and cannot simultaneously capture focused images. “The ability to observe regions every 30 seconds will allow forecasters to see what is happening in near real time and provide information not captured in current satellite imagery, such as the formation and evolution of rapidly developing severe weather,” says Greg Mandt, system program manager for GOES-R at NOAA. “This will enable more advanced warnings and effective evacuations.”
Satellite imagery contributes heavily to the National Weather Service maps that show and predict the movement of storm clouds. GOES-R would collect three times more data, provide four times better image resolution and enable more than five times faster coverage in comparison with the older satellites.
The updated satellite will also feature an instrument that represents the first of its kind in orbit: a lightning mapper. This high-speed, near-infrared camera will detect lightning flashes over North and South America as well as the surrounding oceans, enabling forecasters to issue earlier warnings for severe storms. There are also onboard instruments to watch the sun and detect dangerous solar storms that can hurl charged electromagnetic particles at Earth. Better space weather forecasting could provide notifications of potential disruptions to power grids and satellite fleets.
Much is riding on the planned November 4 launch of the first GOES-R satellite. The initial launch, which was slated for last October, has already been delayed twice because of budget issues and launch schedule problems. But more delays could mean NOAA may not have a backup weather satellite ready in the event that an operational satellite malfunctions. Any potential gaps in weather coverage could prove costly. In 2015 alone there were 10 weather or climate disasters—each costing the U.S. more than $1 billion in damage. “Investing in this satellite system is an investment in our safety,” Mandt says.