New Satellite Promises More Accurate Forecasts

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A new satellite may be able to provide better predictions of severe weather.

Accurate weather predictions can save lives, whether it’s forecasting fire behavior or tracking hurricanes and severe storms. And forecasts are about to improve dramatically, thanks to a satellite — built in Colorado — that’s scheduled to launch on Saturday.
NASA’s GOES-R satellite was built in Littleton by Lockheed Martin. Tim Gasparinni, who runs Lockheed’s weather satellite program, said the new satellite represents a “quantum leap” forward, helping provide more frequent monitoring of weather events. The satellite is expected to give better resolution and infrared, which will allow it to detect moisture. It can also look at fire danger and snow pack., as well as lengthen tornado warnings.

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The GOES-R weather satellite, getting ready for launch.
Had Goes-R been in effect in October, Gasparinni said it might have helped improve predictions of Hurricane Matthew, which led to about 1,000 deaths in Haiti, and another 50 in the United States. The satellite would have been able to determine the storm’s category and where it was going to land, perhaps helping with evacuation efforts.

~~~  LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW  ~~~

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Every morning in a government office building in Boulder, Colo., about a dozen people type a code into a door and line up against a wall on the other side. There are a couple of guys in military uniform, and some scientists in Hawaiian shirts. They work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and they’re here for a daily space weather forecast.

“Good morning, everyone,” says Jeff Stankiewicz, one of 11 forecasters who rotate around the clock. He tells the group about a pair of sunspots he’s keeping an eye on. “We have not seen any significant flare activity out of either of them over the last 24 hours,” he says, before moving on to wind speeds and coronal holes.

It may come as a surprise that there’s weather in space, but there is, and it’s happening pretty much all the time.

It’s caused by particles flying off the sun, through space and smashing into Earth’s atmosphere.

Right now, the data that give people like Stankiewicz an idea of what’s going on out in the void comes from a series of satellites that have monitored weather on Earth and in space since the 1970s. Saturday, a new one called GOES-R is set to launch from Cape Canaveral. It’s outfitted with gadgets that have been tested on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and will now hover 22,000 miles over the Western Hemisphere.

The imaging devices on board will feed straight into operation centers like the one Stankiewicz works in, which features a wall of screens that show the sun’s twitchy, swirly activity through different wavelengths of light. Stankiewicz has had his eyes glued to these screens for a few hours. His job is to figure out which of the puffs and swirls might cause problems for Earth, like the spurt of hot gas he saw fly off a few hours before.

“So, pay attention here,” he says, pointing to a spot on a video showing the sun’s activity over the last few days. A dark red puff of what looks like smoke lifts off the surface and disappears into space. It looks wispy and delicate, but jets of hot gas like that can be huge.

“It’s a billion tons of material traveling a million miles an hour,” says Rodney Viereck, a physicist with NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

There are three kinds of space weather: photons, protons and plasma. Photons travel at the speed of light, arriving here in eight minutes. Protons take about half an hour to deliver radiation to Earth (“These protons may be the biggest challenge of getting humans to Mars and back healthy,” Viereck notes.) Plasma can take three days.

~~~  LISTEN/CARRY ON  ~~~

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