Satellite is launched to monitor space weather as solar activity increases

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Forecasters will soon be able to map lightning activity on Earth in real time and keep a closer eye on solar storms caused by the sun thanks to a new weather satellite.

Together, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched GOES-U, or the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite U, mission on Tuesday.

The weather satellite lifted off at 5:26 PM ET aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was streamed live on NASA’s website. Weather conditions in Florida were 60% favorable for a launch at the beginning of the launch period.

GOES-U is the fourth, final satellite in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites R Series, “the Western Hemisphere’s most advanced weather observation and environmental monitoring system,” according to NOAA.

“The GOES-R series of satellites has been a game changer for us,” said Ken Graham, director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, during a press conference on Monday. “Since the series first launched in 2016, the latest generation of GOES has enabled new and improved forecasting and warning services to save lives and protect property.”

GOES-U will launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday afternoon.  -NASA/YouTube

GOES-U will launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday afternoon. -NASA/YouTube

Once GOES-U reaches geostationary orbit, or a circular orbit above Earth’s equator, the satellite will be renamed GOES-19 or GOES East. The satellite will replace GOES-16, the former GOES East satellite launched in 2016, and work in tandem with GOES-18, also known as GOES West. Meanwhile, the GOES-16 satellite will essentially become an in-space backup for the system in case one of the satellites fails.

Together, the GOES-18 and GOES-19 satellites will collect atmospheric, solar, climate and ocean data, covering more than half the world, from the west coast of Africa to New Zealand.

What sets GOES-U apart from other satellites is that it has a new ability to monitor space weather.

Tracking solar activity

As the sun approaches solar maximum – the peak in its eleven-year cycle expected this year – it becomes more active. Researchers have observed increasingly intense solar flares and coronal mass ejections erupting from the Sun’s surface.

Coronal mass ejections are large clouds of ionized gas called plasma and magnetic fields that are released from the Sun’s outer atmosphere.

When these eruptions are aimed at Earth, they can cause geomagnetic storms or major disruptions to the Earth’s magnetic field. These events always have the potential to affect communications, power grids, navigation, radio and satellite operations.

Solar activity around the sun can be seen on May 10. - Atmospheric Imaging AssemblyOn May 10, solar activity can be seen around the sun.  - Atmospheric Imaging Assembly

On May 10, solar activity can be seen around the sun. – Atmospheric Imaging Assembly

The most intense solar storm to hit Earth in two decades occurred on May 10, but luckily it only caused auroras to shine over states that never see the Northern Lights.

Increased solar activity causes auroras that dance around Earth’s poles, known as the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, and Southern Lights, or aurora australis. When the activated particles from coronal mass ejections reach Earth’s magnetic field, they interact with gases in the atmosphere to create different colored lights in the sky.

GOES-U has multiple instruments that will improve the detection of space weather hazards, including the Compact Coronagraph-1 that can detect solar flares and coronal mass ejections, and characterize the size, speed, density and direction of these solar storms.

The coronagraph will provide continuous observations of the solar corona, or the hot outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere, where space weather events originate, said Elsayed Talaat, director of NOAA’s Office of Space Weather Observations.

The instrument’s capabilities will enable NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center to provide warnings and watches one to four days in advance and “mark a new chapter in space weather observations,” Talaat said.

The Compact Coronagraph-1 is the world’s first-ever operational satellite coronagraph that can better monitor the sun, said Steve Volz, assistant administrator of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service.

“This new instrument will provide images of the Sun’s corona to our forecasters at the Space Weather Prediction Center within 30 minutes, compared to last time when it took about eight hours,” Graham said. “Geomagnetic storms can impact our infrastructure here on Earth by endangering our power grid, communications, navigation systems, aviation and space assets. Through better and faster observation, we can better warn our infrastructure providers and potential hazards so they can take action.”

Lightning strikes in real time

From orbit, GOES-U will monitor weather, climate and environmental hazards in North, Central and South America, the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean to the west coast of Africa.

From its unique vantage point, GOES-U will be able to spot tropical storms, send alerts to forecasters as the storms form in the Atlantic Ocean, and provide near real-time tracking and monitoring.

The satellite carries a suite of scientific instruments, including imaging and mapping technology, that can capture valuable data about hurricanes, including upper-level wind speeds, specific features about the eye of the hurricane and lightning activity, all of which can better assist forecasters. understand potential risks.

GOES-U will carry the first operational lightning mapper to be flown into geostationary orbit. As storms develop, they tend to show spikes in lightning activity. By understanding how storms develop and intensify, meteorologists can better predict whether storms can cause flash flooding, produce hail, produce damaging winds or spawn tornadoes.

The lightning mapper will take pictures of the Earth at a rate of 500 times per second to track lightning like never before, Sullivan said.

The main camera on GOES-U can zoom in as often as every 30 seconds to monitor hazardous weather and environmental conditions, a capability that will allow for better warning systems, said Pam Sullivan, director of the GOES-R program for NOAA.

Forecasters can also use GOES-U’s tools to identify the risks of wildfires, including hotspots, intensity, smoke production and air quality impacts, and even data that can help trackers predict the movement of the fires. The satellite can also use its lightning mapper to determine which lightning strikes are most likely to cause forest fires.

Other environmental hazards that GOES-U can monitor include real-time images of fog and low clouds that can affect air and sea travel, as well as detecting volcanic eruptions and the ash and sulfur dioxide spewed by volcanoes. GOES-U will also be able to monitor atmospheric river events, or large parts of Earth’s atmosphere that transport moisture from the equator to the poles, which can cause floods and mudslides.

In addition to providing early warning of hurricane formation, GOES-U can also collect climate data about Earth’s oceans, such as signs of marine heat waves and sea surface temperatures, which affect the marine food chain and could lead to mass coral bleaching.

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