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Next-Gen Lightning Tracker Photographs Storms From Space in Stunning Detail

Part of the GOES-16 weather satellite, the geosynchronous imager promises to improve storm detection and reveal the secrets of thunderbolts

First image from NASA's Geostationary Lightning Tracker (NOAA/NASA)
smithsonian.com

Earlier this week, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released the first images from their next-gen lightning tracker. The first lightning detector in geosynchronous orbit, the Geostationary Lightning Mappper continuously scans for lightning in the Western Hemisphere. That will give forecasters the ability to monitor storms as they strengthen and intensify in real time, a press release said.

The lightning monitor is currently sitting at 22,300 miles above the earth, on the GOES-16 weather satellite, which launched November 2016. The images released to the public come from one hour on February 14 and show lightning occurring from the Gulf of Mexico to South America, including images of a storm system that spun out tornadoes near Houston, Rebecca Hersher at NPR reports.

In addition to being the first space-based lightning detector to continuously monitor the Western Hemisphere, the monitor is also the first that can detect lightning striking from cloud to cloud. It’s hoped that detection of that lightning, which usually occurs five to 10 minutes before ground strikes, might allow forecasters to warn the public about dangerous conditions earlier than they currently are able.

“As you can imagine, we are pretty excited here at NOAA Satellites,” a spokesperson tells Hersher. “Lightning strikes the U.S. on average of 25 million times each year, and kills on average 49 people in the U.S. each year.”

Hersher reports that the tracker takes images at 500 frames per second. In a statement, Lockheed Martin which built the instrument, claims that in the few weeks that it’s been online, it has produced more data on lightning than all other space-based lightning trackers combined. “GLM is a first-of-a-kind capability for lightning monitoring at geostationary orbit," Jeff Vanden Beukel, Lockheed Martin GOES-R instruments director, says in the press release. “Seeing individual lightning strikes from 22,300 miles away is an incredible feat, plus we're monitoring cloud-to-cloud lightning for the first time. All this will give forecasters better data to give people on the ground, at sea and in the air faster severe weather warning.”

Megan Gannon at Live Science reports that data from the lightning tracker will also be useful to firefighters who can identify dry areas where wildfires may break out, and will aid ships and airplanes identify storms brewing far out to sea.

The lightning tracker isn’t the only cool gadget aboard GOES-16. Gannon reports that the satellite includes the Advanced Baseline Imager, which snaps high-res images of earth’s surface, including an update of the famous “Blue Marble” image. The satellite also includes the Extreme Ultraviolet and X-Ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) which will monitor space weather and has already picked up data from its first solar flares. And the Space Environment In‐Situ Suite (SEISS) detects charged particles from space and has also begun collecting data.

According to Hersher, the lightning tracker is still in the testing phase. If everything checks out, it will go fully live in November. She also reports that a second, similar satellite will go into operation 9 months later.

Watch storms brewing over southeast Texas in the video below:

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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