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NOAA’s GOES-16 weather satellite to showcase its lightning detection capabilities

Artist's rendering of the GOES-16 satellite in orbit.

Artist’s rendering of the GOES-16 satellite in orbit. Image Credit: NOAA

NOAA’s new highly advanced GOES-16 (formerly known as GOES-R) weather satellite, which has just completed its third month in space, is expected to provide crucial data necessary to detect the presence of lightning earlier and better than before. The satellite’s Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) instrument will soon deliver first data essential for forecasting intensifying storms and severe weather events.

“On February 28, the ‘first light’ images and data will be available from NOAA GOES-16’s GLM instrument,” Connie Barclay of NOAA told

This image shows the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) as it prepares to undergo vibration testing, which simulates the stresses experienced during launch.

This image shows the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) as it prepares to undergo vibration testing, which simulates the stresses experienced during launch. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Corporation

Storm detection

GLM will collect information such as the frequency, location, and extent of lightning discharges to improve the detection of thunderstorms and tropical cyclones that are strengthening. The instrument is sensitive to the in-cloud lightning that is most dominant in severe thunderstorms and provides nearly uniform total lightning coverage over the region of interest.

“GLM’s ability to capture trends in total lightning is critical for forecasters, which will allow them to focus on severe storms as they develop much earlier than they can now, and before the storms produce damaging winds, hail, or even tornadoes,” Barclay said.

Built by Lockheed Martin, GLM is a single-channel, near-infrared optical transient detector that can detect the momentary changes in an optical scene, indicating the presence of lightning. It has a telescopic CCD camera sensitive to 777.4 nm light with a spatial resolution of five miles / eight kilometers (at nadir) to 8.7 miles / 14 kilometers (at the edge of the field of view), capturing 500 frames per second.

The instrument has great potential to increase lead time for severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings and reduce false alarm rates. It is also expected to provide early warning of lightning ground strike hazards and improve our detection of heavy rainfall and flash flooding. Moreover, it will allow monitoring the intensity change of tropical cyclones, which is often accompanied by increased lightning activity.

“The GLM will be the first-ever lightning mapper instrument operated in a geostationary orbit,” Barclay noted.

She added that the importance of this tool is undeniable when you take lightning statistics into account.

“Lightning kills an average of 49 people in the U.S. each year and lightning strikes the U.S. an average of 25 million times each year,” Barclay told

NOAA plans to use data from the GLM instrument to produce a long-term database to track decadal changes in lightning activity. This database could be of high importance for long-term climate variability studies.

The spacecraft

GOES-16 was launched into space on Nov. 19, 2016, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida atop an Atlas V booster. The spacecraft is part of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) system operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Currently, GOES-16 is situated in orbit 22,300 miles (36,000 kilometers) above Earth. On Jan. 23, 2017, NOAA released first images of our planet acquired by this satellite.

After undergoing a checkout and validation of its six instruments, GOES-16 will become operational in November 2017, a year after launching. In general, the new spacecraft is expected to boost the nation’s weather observation network and NOAA’s prediction capabilities, leading to more accurate and timely forecasts, watches, and warnings.



Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

james eberwine

Good day,

I retired from NWS at Hurricane Program Manager at Mt Holly NJ and teach aviation weather at the Junior College and high school level.

Since NOAA GOES 16 has come on board, that is my “first” stop when addressing real-time weather. Absolutely stunning images and with the lightning coming on board, just fantastic technology.

Thanks so much – Jim Eberwine retired NWS

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