Monday, September 25

Satellite launching Tuesday to track extreme weather and fires in western U.S.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) GOES-T is slated to launch Tuesday at 4:38 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The satellite is expected to be fully operational by early 2023 and will oversee the U.S. West, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, Central America and Pacific Ocean.

Monitoring our planet has become increasingly vital in recent years, as climate change and extreme weather events take their toll on people and the environment. Fires, hurricanes and flood-inducing atmospheric rivers have been causing more damage in recent years. Last year, 20 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, the second-most on record, caused $145 billion in damage in the United States.

The new satellite, which will be renamed GOES-18 when in orbit, is part of NOAA’s latest and most advanced fleet of geostationary weather satellites, known as the GOES-R series. GOES-T is the third of four satellites in the series, which has a price tag of $11.7 billion.

The satellite series delivers 60 times more imagery than previous generations and contains the first geostationary cameras to detect lightning, which can help track severe storms. All satellites in the series contain the same onboard capabilities and instruments to monitor weather systems and the environment.

“NOAA’s geostationary satellites provide the only continuous coverage of weather and hazardous environmental conditions in the Western Hemisphere, protecting the lives and properties of the 1 billion people who live and work there,” said Pam Sullivan, system program director for the GOES-R Series Program, in a virtual news conference.

One of the most important jobs of GOES-T will be to detect fire activity, which has ravaged the western United States in recent decades. Eighteen of California’s 20 largest wildfires in state history have occurred in the past two decades, some occurring outside of the typical fire season.

The onboard Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) can detect “hot spots,” or thermal signatures from fires. With the vantage point from space, the instrument may even detect fires before ground reports come in and expedite firefighting efforts. ABI can also detect smoke plumes and alert officials if smoke is entering a populous area. It can also help monitor land recovery after a fire passes through and determine the size of burn scars.

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Even before a fire occurs, the spacecraft can provide clues to scientists and authorities on where fires have a higher risk of occurring. GOES-T will constantly monitor vegetation health; often areas with plenty of vegetation can help fuel fires, given that fire weather conditions and an ignition source are present.

GOES-T also carries an instrument called the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), which can detect lightning. As lightning is a common igniter of fires, the instrument could help officials be more proactive in finding and controlling fires or retroactively determining the cause.

Recently, researchers found another novel use for the GOES’s lightning camera: detecting incoming bolides, or very large and bright meteors. On Jan. 1, a loud boom, flash and rumble occurred in Pittsburgh, bewildering the local government. Scientists confirmed that the event was an exploding meteor that produced an energy blast equal to 30 tons of TNT. The GLM detected the flash and thousands of other bolides over the years.

“GLM is able to detect meteors or bolides as they come into the atmosphere because of the light flashes that occur,” said Dan Lindsey, GOES-R program scientist. “This is something we didn’t expect.”

The GOES instruments also showed impressive capabilities during the Hunga Tonga volcanic explosion in January. The Pacific volcano erupted explosively and sent ash 10,000 feet high. It generated an atmospheric shock wave that rippled around the world multiple times and for multiple days, getting progressively weaker. Scientists were able to take data from the GOES’s ABI to show the movement of the pressure wave.

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“We know we can detect atmospheric waves in general … but with the Tonga eruption, it was so powerful,” Lindsey said. “If you had asked me beforehand if this was possible, I would have said no way, but it turns out, yes, we were able to use satellites to detect that wave and track it.”

Additionally, the onboard GOES ABI instrument can detect ash and the particulates from the volcanic explosions. Hovering over the Western Hemisphere, GOES-T will be useful for detecting ash plumes over the north Pacific Ocean, which could affect airplanes traveling between East Asia and North America.

“This is important, because it’s dangerous to fly an airplane into volcanic ash. It can damage the engine, which is obviously a problem,” Lindsey said. “Any time there’s a big eruption, we use data from the ABI … to track the volcanic ash cloud and tell the pilots where it is. That way, they can steer the plane around it and decrease the threat that could cause.

The ABI will also help track atmospheric rivers in the Pacific Coast, tracking nascent cloud formations and winds from the Pacific Ocean. In the 2021-22 winter season alone, several atmospheric rivers have pummeled the Pacific Northwest, causing intense flooding.

Data from the satellite, such as wind speed and direction, is expected to improve NOAA’s numerical weather models as well.

But not all of the GOES instruments face Earth. GOES-T hosts four different instruments that will monitor the sun and space weather, tracking solar eruptions, coronal mass ejections and other particle influxes.

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Such events could affect satellite communications, GPS signals and power systems on Earth. The sun is entering a more active period, known as the solar maximum, where such space weather — and disruptions — could be more common.

The instruments “can sometimes see these things happening. It sometimes takes a few hours or a few days even for the particles from the sun to make it back to the Earth,” Lindsey said. “It allows time to provide warning to people on the Earth, spacecraft operators, even the Space Station.”

GOES-T was developed by NOAA, NASA and several industry partners. Lockheed Martin developed the spacecraft, lightning mapper and solar imager. L3Harris built the ABI, which serves as the main camera, and the operational ground system at the NOAA satellite operations facility in Suitland, Md., and the Wallops Command and Data Acquisition Center in Wallops, Va. NASA was in charge of the formulation, development, launch, initial operation and built the magnetometer. NOAA operates the satellite, which weighs more than 3 tons.

After its launch, GOES-T will be centered over the United States for two months for post-launch testing. It will then drift over the eastern Pacific Ocean for additional post-launch testing for the remainder of the year. In early 2023, the satellite will replace the second satellite in the series, GOES-17, which is operational but has a slight cooling problem with one of the instruments. GOES-17 will be available as a backup. The fourth and last satellite of the series will be launched around 2024 and will also serve as a backup for the existing satellites.

Over the years, the NASA-NOAA collaboration has successfully launched more than 60 weather satellites. NOAA is planning a follow-on weather satellite program called Geostationary Extended Observations (GeoXO), which will operate into the 2050s.

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