7 Advanced Facts About the GOES-R Weather Satellite Launching Today

At Cape Canaveral, a crane lifts the GOES-R satellite to join it with the Atlas V Centaur rocket that will take it up into orbit. Image Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky via Flickr

The future of weather forecasting weighs more than 6000 pounds and is patiently spending its final days on Earth overlooking the glistening Florida coast. NASA will soon launch the latest addition to its arsenal of tools designed to help meteorologists track and predict the future movements of our fluid atmosphere. The GOES-R weather satellite will provide scientists around the world with a trove of data to monitor the latest movements of storms both near and far.


Barring any last-minute issues, GOES-R is scheduled to begin its journey on November 19 just after sunset from Cape Canaveral. GOES-R should have already been in space by now, but like many space projects before it, the new satellite’s launch has suffered several minor delays in the months leading up to launch.

The original launch date was November 4, but in a fitting sendoff for the country’s most advanced weather satellite to date, Hurricane Matthew’s terrifying brush with Florida pushed the launch back by a couple of weeks to November 16 due to safety checks. The launch was further delayed by a couple of days while crews worked out some issues with the booster rockets that will help GOES-R reach orbit.


The name “GOES” stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, a mouthful that alludes to the very orbit that makes these satellites so useful. Unlike many spacecraft that actively circle the Earth every hour or two, weather monitoring satellites like the GOES series are parked in a geosynchronous, or geostationary, orbit. Satellites that follow a geosynchronous orbit exactly match the speed at which the planet rotates, allowing the satellite to remain over one fixed point on the Earth’s surface. Scientists achieve this feat by sending satellites into orbit exactly 42,164 kilometers (26,199 miles) away from the center of the Earth—or about 36,000 kilometers (22,369 miles) above the surface at the equator—giving the satellite a consistent view of half the planet for its entire service life, which in this case is anticipated to be about 10 years.


A map showing the locations and coverage area of the three GOES satellites in active service. Image credit: NOAA/NASA

We currently have three different GOES satellites that help us monitor the Western Hemisphere. The two satellites that are in active service are GOES-13 and GOES-15. The former satellite is commonly called GOES-East, while the latter is aptly known as GOES-West. Each satellite covers about half of the Western Hemisphere. GOES-East watches over most of North America, all of South America, and the Atlantic Ocean, while GOES-West primarily keeps tabs on the eastern Pacific Ocean and parts of western North America. GOES-14 serves as a backup satellite, filling in for the other two satellites if they encounter any issues.


A low-pressure system in the western Atlantic Ocean as seen by GOES-East on November 10, 2016. Image credit: NASA/NOAA

The most important feature of GOES-R will be its Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), the device that will give us a more detailed view of the atmosphere much faster than its predecessors. The current generation of GOES satellites generate "full disk" images (meaning of the entire Earth face) every three hours and higher-resolution views every 15 minutes. In contrast, GOES-R and its successors will take full-disk images every 15 minutes and a higher-resolution image of the United States every five minutes. If there's an active storm, it'll take two images of it every 60 seconds. See it in action below.

The new satellite also has the ability to give us rapid scans of smaller areas—think on the level of a couple of states—to track events like tornado outbreaks or the eye of a hurricane. The satellite will be able to give us rapid updates for two small areas every 60 seconds or one small area every 30 seconds, which will be a tremendous help in tracking important changes in rapidly-developing weather systems.


GOES-R's primary capabilities. Image Credit: NOAA/NASA

GOES-R will also host a nifty device known as the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), making it the first satellite to track lightning flashes from geosynchronous orbit. The sensor will monitor the atmosphere for sudden flashes of light that indicate the presence of lightning, mapping this data to give us a near-real-time look at just about every thunderstorm within the satellite’s range of sight.

Among other uses, data collected by the GLM could help forecasters extend warning lead times ahead of intensifying severe thunderstorms, adding crucial minutes for people to act before dangerous wind, hail, or tornadoes strike their area. It’s also useful in helping us monitor rapid intensification of hurricanes, as increased lightning activity in the eyewall of a tropical cyclone often precedes strengthening.


The satellite will also have several sensors dedicated to monitoring activity around the Sun, some of which can have serious implications here on Earth. The Extreme ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) will help us track solar flares that could disrupt communications and potentially damage satellites. Several of the sensors will also measure different types of radiation approaching the planet, which can also damage satellites and pose harm to astronauts and even passengers on airline routes that travel over the poles.


The GOES-R satellite in the payload processing facility two months before launch. Image Credit: NOAA Satellites via Flickr

It’s customary for GOES satellites to be named sequentially by letter before launch and by number after launch. Once it reaches a successful orbit and begins operation, GOES-R will become GOES-16. NOAA hasn’t decided which current satellite the new one will replace, though GOES-East is the odds-on favorite for replacement as it’s passed the end of its expected 10-year lifespan.


GOES-R represents the fifth generation of GOES satellites, a series that began with the launch of GOES-1 back in 1975. Each new group of satellites improved by leaps and bounds over the previous generation. The first three satellites had limited abilities and provided limited data compared to what we can gather today; they took little more than a picture of the Earth. Each generation after that grew more advanced with improved image resolution, improved speed, more data points, and better data quality.


The next two satellites in GOES-R’s class are scheduled to launch before the end of the decade, finally phasing out the fourth generation of satellites in use today. Barring any major issues with GOES-R, the next satellite, GOES-S, is tentatively scheduled to launch in the winter of 2018, and GOES-T will follow behind it in the fall of 2019. After that, we have to wait until the middle of the 2020s to enjoy the technological advances of the series of satellites that will replace the one launching this Saturday.  

New AI-Driven Music System Analyzes Tracks for Perfect Playlists

Whether you're planning a bachelorette party or recovering from a breakup, a well-curated playlist makes all the difference. If you don't have time to pick the perfect songs manually, services that use the AI-driven system Sonic Style may be able to figure out exactly what you have in mind based on your request.

According to Fast Company, Sonic Style is the new music-categorizing service from the media and entertainment data provider Gracenote. There are plenty of music algorithms out there already, but Sonic Style works a little differently. Rather than listing the entire discography of a certain artist under a single genre, the AI analyzes individual tracks. It considers factors like the artist's typical genre and the era the song was recorded in, as well as qualities it can only learn through listening, like tempo and mood. Based on nearly 450 descriptors, it creates a super-accurate "style profile" of the track that makes it easier for listeners to find it when searching for the perfect song to fit an occasion.

Playlists that use data from Sonic Style feel like they were made by a person with a deep knowledge of music rather than a machine. That's thanks to the system's advanced neural network. It also recognizes artists that don't fit neatly into one genre, or that have evolved into a completely different music style over their careers. Any service—including music-streaming platforms and voice-activated assistants—that uses Gracenote's data will be able to take advantage of the new technology.

With AI at your disposal, all you have to do as the listener is decide on a style of music. Here are some ideas to get you started if you want a playlist for productivity.

[h/t Fast Company]

Essential Science
What Is Death?

The only thing you can be certain about in life is death. Or is it? Merriam-Webster defines death as "a permanent cessation of all vital functions." The Oxford English dictionary refines that to "the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue." But determining when someone is dead is surprisingly complicated—the medical definition has changed over the centuries and, in many ways, is still evolving.


For most of human history, doctors relied on basic observations to determine whether or not a person had died. (This may be why so many feared being buried alive and went to great lengths to ensure they wouldn't be.) According to Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, "If a person wasn't visibly breathing, if they were cold and bluish in color, for example, they would be considered dead."

As time went on, the markers for death changed. Before the mid-1700s, for example, people were declared dead when their hearts stopped beating—a conclusion drawn from watching traumatic deaths such as decapitations, where the heart seemed to be the last organ to give up. But as our understanding of the human body grew, other organs, like the lungs and brain, were considered metrics of life—or death.

Today, that remains true to some degree; you can still be declared dead when your heart and lungs cease activity. And yet you can also be declared dead if both organs are still working, but your brain is not.

In most countries, being brain dead—meaning the whole brain has stopped working and cannot return to functionality—is the standard for calling death, says neuroscientist James Bernat, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "A doctor has to show that the loss of brain function is irreversible," he tells Mental Floss. In some cases, a person can appear to be brain dead if they have overdosed on certain drugs or have suffered from hypothermia, for example, but the lack of activity is only temporary—these people aren't truly brain dead.

In the U.S., all states follow some form of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which in 1981 defined a dead person as "an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem."

But that's not the end of the story. In two states, New York and New Jersey, families can reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs. This makes it possible for someone to be considered alive in some states and dead in others.


In the past, if one of a person's three vital systems—circulation, respiration, and brain function—failed, the rest would usually stop within minutes of each other, and there was no coming back from that. But today, thanks to technological advances and medical breakthroughs, that's no longer necessarily the case. CPR can be performed to restart a heartbeat; a person who has suffered cardiac arrest can often be resuscitated within a 20- to 30-minute window (in rare cases, people have been revived after several hours). And since the 1950s, machines have been used to take on the role of many of the body's vital functions. People who stop breathing naturally can be hooked up to ventilators to move air in and out of their lungs, for example.

While remarkable, this life-extending technology has blurred the line between life and death. "A person can now have certain characteristics of being alive and others of being dead," Bernat says.

People with severe, irreversible brain damage fall into this mixed category. Many lie in intensive care units where ventilators breathe for them, but because they have minimal reflexes or movements, they're considered alive, especially by their families. Medical professionals, however, may disagree, leading to painful and complex debates about whether someone is alive.

Take the case of Jahi McMath, whose tonsil surgery in 2013, at age 13, went terribly wrong, leaving her brain dead—or so doctors thought. Her family refused to believe she was dead and moved her from Oakland, California, to New Jersey, where she was provided with feeding tubes in addition to her ventilator. After several months, her mother began recording videos that she said were proof that Jahi could move different parts of her body when asked to. Additional brain scans revealed that although some parts of her brain, like her brain stem, were largely destroyed, the structure of large parts of her cerebrum, which is responsible for consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, was intact. Her heart rate also changed when her mother spoke, leading a neurologist to declare last year, after viewing many of her mother's videos, that she is technically alive—nearly four years after she was pronounced brain dead. By her mother's reckoning, Jahi turned 17 on October 24, 2017.

Organ donation adds another layer of complications. Since an organ needs to be transplanted as quickly as possible to avoid damage, doctors want to declare death as soon as they can after a person has been disconnected from a machine. The protocol is usually to wait for five minutes after a donor's heart and breathing have stopped. However, some believe that's not long enough, since the person could still be resuscitated at that point.

Bernat—whose research interests include brain death and the definition of death, consciousness disorders including coma and vegetative states, and ethical and philosophical issues in neurology—disagrees. "I would argue that breathing and circulation has permanently ceased even if it hasn't irreversibly ceased," he says. "It won't restart by itself."


As resuscitation technology improves, scientists may find new ways to reverse death. One promising approach is therapeutic hypothermia. Sometimes used on heart attack patients who have been revived, the therapy uses cooling devices to lower body temperature, usually for about 24 hours. "It improves a patient's chance of recovering from cardiac arrest and the brain injury [from a lack of oxygen] that can result from it," says Leary, who specializes in research and education relating to cardiac arrest, CPR quality, and therapeutic hypothermia.

One more out-there possibility—which had its heyday in the early 2000s but still has its proponents today—is cryonic freezing, in which dead bodies (and in some cases, just people's heads) are preserved in the hope that they can be brought back once technology advances. Just minutes after death, a cryonaut's body is chilled; a chest compression device called a thumper keeps blood flowing through the body, which is then shot up with anticoagulants to prevent blood clots from forming; and finally, the blood is flushed out and replaced with a kind of antifreeze to halt the cell damage that usually occurs from freezing.

The idea is highly controversial. "It makes a good story for a movie, but it seems crazy to me," Bernat says. "I don't think it's the answer." But even if cryogenics is out, Bernat does believe that certain types of brain damage now thought to be permanent could one day be subject to medical intervention. "There is currently a huge effort in many medical centers to study brain resuscitation," he says.

Genetics provides another potential frontier. Scientists recently found that some genes in mice and fish live on after they die. And even more surprisingly, other genes regulating embryonic development, which switch off when an animal is born, turn on again after death. We don't yet know if the same thing happens in humans.


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