BOULDER, Colo. — A satellite called GOES-18 (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) made a successful deployment into orbit Tuesday. It previously bore the name GOES-T until it made it into orbit.
It’s now the third member of a next-generation team of weather satellites, joining GOES-16 and GOES-17 already in orbit.
Sophisticated instruments onboard show things like the temperature and height of the clouds, and how much water vapor is present in the atmosphere.
They also show a visual picture of where storm systems are forming.
Human meteorologists use this information to make forecasts, but artificial intelligence is also watching the data.
“This is a huge volume of data. There’s a lot of more subtle patterns in it that can sometimes be harder to pick up on from a human perspective,” said David John Gagne, a machine learning specialist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
Gagne said he can train a computer program to recognize the early stages of developing weather by analyzing data from the GOES satellites.
“They’re explicitly designed to look for some of these more subtle shapes, and larger-scale structures, and combine the information across these scales to make a better prediction," he said.
It’s similar to your smartphone being able to recognize your picture. Train it to identify the specific features of your face, and it can pick you out of a crowd.
Train a computer to identify the shape, size, color and temperature of thunderstorms that produced tornadoes in the past, and it can recognize the next signature on satellite before it produces a tornado.
Gagne said similar computer learning could work for all types of weather systems, and the key is the fine detail provided by the latest GOES satellites.
“There’s a lot of power in just being able to do that," Gagne said. "And it gives us a sense of how weather and climate will change into the future.”
He said artificial intelligence is also being trained to recognized wildfires, dust storms and volcanic eruptions, so they can alert their human counterparts quickly.
There only has to be two GOES satellites in operation to provide the necessary coverage. GOES-16, launched in 2016, is positioned to cover the east coast of the U.S., and GOES-17, launched in 2018, is positioned to cover the west coast.
GOES-18, launched Tuesday, was originally meant to be a backup satellite, but an issue developed with GOES-17 shortly after it became operational in 2019, so GOES-18 is now on its way to take over the western slot. GOES-17 will be moved into a storage orbit.
The issue with GOES-17 is with its Advanced Baseline Imager. When the sun is at just the right angle, the radiation overheats the satellite and causes the imagery to become distorted.
It only seems to happen at night in North America, so it only impacts the infrared data coming from the satellite, but distortion like that could have a huge impact on the way AI develops forecast solutions.
Another backup satellite is being assembled at Lockheed Martin's campus in Littleton, Colorado. GOES-U will eventually become GOES-19 if it is launched into a storage orbit. NASA also has the option to keep the spacecraft on Earth until it is needed.
Two backup satellites were part of the original plan for this generation of GOES satellites -- in case one of the four was damaged during launch or while in orbit, or in case of a technical malfunction. That redundancy is already paying off.
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