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The Latest Weather Satellite Is Freaking Awesome

GOES-16 is back and almost operational! The sixteenth edition of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite or GOES-16 is one of the latest and greatest hunks of metal we humans have hurled into space. This satellite is already revolutionizing how we visualize the weather and is set to improve weather forecasts. How does this satellite work and why is it so awesome? Okay, let’s science.

For the whole story, watch the video above or read the post below (or both!). To see more of these videos, click here to subscribe.

To start, let’s get a better of understanding of what GOES-16 is. GOES-16 is a geostationary satellite meaning it’s traveling at 3,000 meters per second, twenty-two thousands miles above our heads, just so it can stay in one position relative to Earth, looking down at the same area at all times. If you were to view one of these satellites from the ground, you’d look up to see an object that appears motionless. The other common satellite track is polar orbiting. While geostationary satellites only view one chunk of the world, polar orbiting satellites travel from pole to pole, to see nearly every square inch of Earth every day.

GOES-16, as the name says, is the sixteenth of its kind. GOES-1 launched in 1975 and was operational until 1985. Since then 15 other GOES satellites have been launched and put into orbit (yes, I know saying GOES satellite is redundant). Currently, GOES-13 through 15 are still operational and collecting data. So if we have three other satellites up there, why do we need GOES-16 and what it makes it so special?

Well for one satellites have a designated operational lifetime. About every ten years we launch a new series of satellites, all with a similar mission. The latest series is composed of four satellites, GOES-16 was launched in 2016, the next two to be launched in 2018 and 2019, with the final one going up in 2024.

Two of these satellites will be operational, one covering the western half of the united states, the other covering the eastern half. One is for backup, in case something goes wrong. The final satellite will act as a transition to the next series. So what makes this fleet so special? I’m so glad you asked.

There is SO MUCH that makes GOES-16 and it’s sister satellites awesome. Each satellite has several new instruments, that are making their debut in space!

One of which is the Extreme Ultraviolet, X-Ray, and Irradiance Sensor or EXIS which will be pointed directly at the sun observing x-rays associated with incoming solar flares and ultraviolet radiation associated with variability in solar radiation. High levels of either of these can cause blackouts in GPS and radio communications. EXIS will give us better warning and help us prepare for these blackouts.

Next up, the Global Lightning Mapper or GLM. This is flashiest of the new instruments (see what I did there). This instrument will be able to detect lightning associated with thunderstorms including bolts that travel hundreds of miles within the clouds before striking Earth’s surface. Researchers will use the data to better understand the relationship between lightning and thunderstorm development which will eventually improve our weather models and forecasts.

The final instrument I’ll talk about is the Advanced Baseline Imager or ABI. This is the crown jewel of GOES-16. The previous suite of GOES satellites had a similar instrument but ABI is, well as the name says, advanced. ABI collects sixteen different wavelengths of radiation compared to five on the previous imager.

It can collect visible satellite imagery as quickly as every thirty seconds. This allows meteorologists to see details of phenomenon like never seen before. Like the intricacies of explosive thunderstorm development, mesovorticies in the eye of a powerful hurricane, or the transport of smoke from raging wildfires.

As a weather nerd, I am in absolute love with GOES-16 and the imagery it produces. As a taxpayer, I’m proud of what the folks at NOAA, NASA, and Lockheed Martin have built and launched 22,000 miles above our heads. If you want to see GOES-16 imagery in all its glory, I’ve placed a few links in the description below.

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