WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Next-generation satellite will capture 'HD' weather imagery

Posted November 17, 2016

It would be hard to overstate the importance of satellites to weather forecasting.

Of course, we rely on them to provide the various kinds of satellite imagery you see us use on the air every day. But they’re much more than space-based picture takers: Advanced sensors can detect temperature, water vapor, winds, and other parameters through a depth of the atmosphere.

Satellites are key in providing us with weather data from otherwise void regions, such as over oceans, making them invaluable to forecasting and weather modeling. Satellite data, for example, is credited within helping forecasters predict Hurricane Sandy’s eventual path almost a week before it struck the NY/NJ coast.

On Saturday afternoon, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R, or GOES-R (that’s pronounced “goes are”), satellite is scheduled to launch into orbit from Cape Canaveral. Once tested and activated, GOES-R will take our satellite imagery from black-and-white TV to high definition overnight.

The primary instrument, called the Advanced Baseline Imager, or ABI, will capture images five times more frequently than today’s GOES satellites and do so with four times more detail or higher resolution.

It also provides the ability to look at three times as many “channels” or “windows” that allow meteorologists to look for moisture or atmospheric particles at different layers of the atmosphere.

Some other features we are excited about include:

  • A totally new geostationary lightning mapper to detect total lightning — ground strikes and cloud-to-cloud, over land and water
  • Better detection of wildfires and hot spots
  • Estimation of rainfall rates and total precipitation between rain gauges
  • More precise soundings or traces of temperature and moisture through the atmosphere
  • Detection of volcanic ash

Steve Goodman, a senior project scientist for GOES-R, told us today that we probably don’t even know how we’ll use all the data we’ll soon be getting.

It’ll take about a year for GOES-R to hit its stride. Once launched, there’s a period of spin-up and internal testing of the instruments to ensure nothing was damaged in the launch and deployment.

After that, there will be about six months were the instruments are calibrated and tested while the satellite is in a temporary spot. The full feed of data should be flowing by around this time next year.

We take smooth, high-resolution animations of satellite images for granted, but it was not always so. Because of their cost — the GOES-R series of four satellites is currently budgeted to cost almost $11 billion — new satellites have long development cycles and don’t launch frequently, but the technological improvements from generation to generation are significant.

The first weather observing satellite was launched in 1960, a little more than 56 years ago, and gave us one image per day and during the day only. As recently as the beginning of Greg Fishel’s TV career in the early 1980s, satellite images were no more than a couple times per day and were displayed on TV by printing out what amounted to a fax and putting it on a music stand.

Even today’s satellites rely on some technology dating back as far as the 1970s.


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