Moment that mattered: the world’s most sophisticated weather satellite launches in 2016

An image from the GOES-16 satellite of a storm system crossing North America on 15th January 2017 that resulted in dangerous conditions across the US. Photo: NASA/NOAA

“The GOES-16 (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) weather satellite is a big leap forward in technology. It scans the skies five times faster and has four times greater image resolution than the last generation of weather satellites. It’s like upgrading from an old black-and-white TV to a high-definition one.

Our team at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [an agency within the US Department of Commerce] launched GOES-16 from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 6.42pm on 19th November 2016 – but it nearly didn’t happen. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave us a one-hour window because they have to reroute air traffic when we’re launching and it was the busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

I was in the crowd at one of the viewing sites and we could hear conversations taking place between the command director and the staff in the operations room. Small delays were taking place for various reasons and when they announced that our launch time was pushed back to 6.42pm we gasped because we knew that was the last minute in our allotted hour. Thankfully, it went ahead without any hitches and it was an awesome sight. There were around 4,000 spectators watching beside me and we were all incredibly excited.

There was nothing wrong with the way we were doing weather forecasting in the US before GOES-16, but we were using 20-year-old technology. GOES-16 consists of six different instruments which together measure earth weather, solar weather and space weather.

I’m most excited about the Advanced Baseline Imager, which is the primary instrument for imaging earth’s weather, oceans and environment. The clarity in its pictures and video loops is just awesome. When we received the first images we studied them closely and could pick out details like the smoke trail from a fire and snow melting on Long Island, turning from white to light brown in the course of a day. 
These photos were taken from 22,300 miles above earth.

GOES-16’s solar weather instruments detect solar flares, which is important because it helps us to alert other spacecraft that there are energised particles that might be heading towards them. Satellites are able to enter a “safe mode” and temporarily suspend operations if they think that the intensity of the solar flare and the disturbance to the space environment will be too high, and the instruments on GOES-16 can help protect them from that.

I am confident GOES-16 will save lives. It will do this by more accurately forecasting extreme weather”

I am confident GOES-16 will save lives. It will do this by more accurately forecasting extreme weather, including rainfall estimates for better flood warnings. The satellite features an instrument called the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, which tracks lightning in the clouds and measures when it strikes the ground, which helps forecasters see dangerous storms coming.

For forecasters, moving from the previous satellite to GOES-R is the difference between looking at what has been happening with the weather and what is happening right now. They will be able to say, ‘There’s a severe storm two miles from you heading in your direction so you should take cover right now.’

We will also be able to use the technology to rescue stranded hikers, sailors and pilots. We’re part of the SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking) network and a transponder onboard can detect stress beacons and relay the information to the control centre so the coast guard or air force can provide help. It’s going to make a big difference to a lot of people.”


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