In the not-too distant future, you should have a much better idea of just how strong an approaching hurricane might be – as well as whether you can expect to see wildfires, volcanic activity or routine rain showers in your vicinity.
This is courtesy of GOES-R, a super sophisticated weather satellite that should provide the National Hurricane Center and other U.S. weather agencies a major forecasting boost by 2016.
Hovering 22,000 miles above Earth, it will be armed with a camera powerful enough to capture a hurricane's core in intricate detail or the total amount of lightning that zapped the United States on any given day.
"If you sum it all up, it's going to provide 30 times more data than what we're getting from current satellites," said senior hurricane specialist Jack Beven.
GOES-R will be the first of four satellites to be launched into space at various intervals over the next 13 years, all designed to collect a barrage of atmospheric information. With the ability to transmit images with twice the detail and five times faster than current weather satellites, it is expected to most help tropical predictions.
Currently, the hurricane center receives a satellite image of a storm once every 15 to 30 minutes, and the picture can zoom in to within .6 of a mile.
With the GOES-R, the hurricane center will be able to receive rapid-fire images every 30 seconds and zoom in to within .3 of a mile, Beven said.
"Being able to see a hurricane on that kind of time scale will certainly give us more information and help us do a better job of forecasting," he said.
One of its most important benefits: GOES-R should bolster intensity predictions and help forecasters better anticipate when storms might rapidly strengthen or deflate, areas where the hurricane center has struggled for decades.
It will do so by allowing forecasters to better analyze a storm's structure and cloud formations, which indicate a system's strength. GOES-R also will provide a more precise location of the storm's center, which is critical for projecting its future path.
Because the satellite will be able to closely examine the atmosphere in and around storms, it also should help computer models generate more accurate intensify forecasts, Beven said.
"The GOES-R, by itself, won't solve the intensity forecasting problem," he said. "But it will help."
After the new satellite is in operation, the hurricane center hopes draw on its observation powers to develop more sophisticated techniques to compute storm intensity. Currently, forecasters basically rely on "1970s technology" to do so, Beven said.
In all, it will cost about $10.6 billon to launch the GOES-R – which stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, R Series – and its three sister satellites into space, said John Leslie, NOAA spokesman. The satellites are being designed, built and launched by NASA, but will be turned over to NOAA after they reach orbit.
Each will be equipped with numerous instruments to observe a range of atmospheric activity, including solar flares, ozone levels, lightning activity, ocean currents, ice coverage at the Earth's poles and even fog.
For tropical forecasting, the satellite's most crucial device will be an Advanced Baseline Imager, or what amounts to an extremely powerful telescope, said Tim Schmit, a satellite research meteorologist.
"It's the camera, if you will, that looks down and scans the Earth to build images," said Schmit, who works for NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service in Madison, Wis.
NOAA calls its primary weather satellites "geostationary" because they hover over a given area and scan enormous expanses of the Earth. Complementing these, NOAA also uses polar orbiting satellites, which circle the Earth in a north-south pattern near the poles.
Because it will be positioned over the Pacific Ocean and "look" mostly to the east, the GOES-R will be able to provide images of the entire Continental U.S. in about five minutes, Schmit said. When it is put in orbit in 2017, GOES-S will be stationed above the Atlantic Ocean and look west, he added.
The two new GOES satellites will replace two older GOES satellites, which were launched in the past six years. The older ones, however, will remain operational until they are almost out of fuel.
"Then, after they are retired, the geostationary satellites are boosted – using the remaining fuel – into a higher orbit. This is called a super-synchronous, or graveyard, orbit," he said.
Although they might be considered archaic compared to the new satellites, the current GOES satellites still are critical to the hurricane center. Primarily, they allow forecasters to see storms in distant ocean areas that otherwise would go undetected.
"They are the number one tool in our box for monitoring hurricanes and potential hurricanes," Beven said.