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.  

Apple Wants to Patent a Keyboard You’re Allowed to Spill Coffee On

In the future, eating and drinking near your computer keyboard might not be such a dangerous game. On March 8, Apple filed a patent application for a keyboard designed to prevent liquids, crumbs, dust, and other “contaminants” from getting inside, Dezeen reports.

Apple has previously filed several patents—including one announced on March 15—surrounding the idea of a keyless keyboard that would work more like a trackpad or a touchscreen, using force-sensitive technology instead of mechanical keys. The new anti-crumb keyboard patent that Apple filed, however, doesn't get into the specifics of how the anti-contamination keyboard would work. It isn’t a patent for a specific product the company is going to debut anytime soon, necessarily, but a patent for a future product the company hopes to develop. So it’s hard to say how this extra-clean keyboard might work—possibly because Apple hasn’t fully figured that out yet. It’s just trying to lay down the legal groundwork for it.

Here’s how the patent describes the techniques the company might use in an anti-contaminant keyboard:

"These mechanisms may include membranes or gaskets that block contaminant ingress, structures such as brushes, wipers, or flaps that block gaps around key caps; funnels, skirts, bands, or other guard structures coupled to key caps that block contaminant ingress into and/or direct containments away from areas under the key caps; bellows that blast contaminants with forced gas out from around the key caps, into cavities in a substrate of the keyboard, and so on; and/or various active or passive mechanisms that drive containments away from the keyboard and/or prevent and/or alleviate containment ingress into and/or through the keyboard."

Thanks to a change in copyright law in 2011, the U.S. now gives ownership of an idea to the person who first files for a patent, not the person with the first working prototype. Apple is especially dogged about applying for patents, filing plenty of patents each year that never amount to much.

Still, they do reveal what the company is focusing on, like foldable phones (the subject of multiple patents in recent years) and even pizza boxes for its corporate cafeteria. Filing a lot of patents allows companies like Apple to claim the rights to intellectual property for technology the company is working on, even when there's no specific invention yet.

As The New York Times explained in 2012, “patent applications often try to encompass every potential aspect of a new technology,” rather than a specific approach. (This allows brands to sue competitors if they come out with something similar, as Apple has done with Samsung, HTC, and other companies over designs the company views as ripping off iPhone technology.)

That means it could be a while before we see a coffee-proof keyboard from Apple, if the company comes out with one at all. But we can dream.

[h/t Dezeen]

Google Adds 'Wheelchair Accessible' Option to Its Transit Maps

Google Maps is more than just a tool for getting from Point A to Point B. The app can highlight the traffic congestion on your route, show you restaurants and attractions nearby, and even estimate how crowded your destination is in real time. But until recently, people who use wheelchairs to get around had to look elsewhere to find routes that fit their needs. Now, Google is changing that: As Mashable reports, the company's Maps app now offers a wheelchair accessible option to users.

Anyone with the latest version of Google Maps can access the new feature. After opening the app, just enter your starting point and destination and select the public transit choices for your trip. Maps will automatically show you the quickest routes, but the stations it suggests aren't necessarily wheelchair accessible.

To narrow down your choices, hit "Options" in the blue bar above the recommended routes then scroll down to the bottom of the page to find "Wheelchair accessible." When that filter is checked, your list of routes will update to only show you bus stops and subways that are also accessible by ramp or elevator where there are stairs.

While it's a step in the right direction, the new accessibility feature isn't a perfect navigation tool for people using wheelchairs. Google Maps may be able to tell you if a station has an elevator, but it won't tell you if that elevator is out of service, an issue that's unfortunately common in major cities.

The wheelchair-accessible option launched in London, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Boston, and Sydney on March 15, and Google plans to expand it to more transit systems down the road.

[h/t Mashable]


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