A new European satellite will better predict severe thunderstorms

Illustration: the satellite of nearly 4 tons will be 36,000 km above the equator

A new European satellite will be launched on Tuesday that will significantly improve the prediction of sudden and severe storms so we can better prepare for them.

An Ariane rocket will launch the Meteosat-12 weather satellite into the sky to monitor the European continent, the Middle East and Africa.

It is the first spacecraft of a new multi-billion euro observation system.

Arguably Europe’s biggest space launch this year, it replaces technology that’s over 20 years old.

“Look at the storm that hit Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium last year, where over 200 people lost their lives. These events are tragic,” said Phil Evans, CEO of Eumetsat, the intergovernmental organization that manages Europe’s meteorological satellites. .

“More accurate, frequent and relevant observations from space are absolutely essential to provide better forecasts and warnings that help us reduce and mitigate the impacts of these severe weather events.”

Europe has had its own weather spacecraft sitting above the planet since 1977. The new imager going up on Tuesday is the third generation in the series.

Meteosat-12 will return a full image of the weather below every 10 minutes, five minutes faster than is currently the case. It will be able to see even smaller features in the atmosphere, up to 500m in diameter, and see them in more wavelengths of light.

National forecasting agencies such as the UK Met Office and Météo France will see a significant increase in the amount of data they receive.

full disc

A full disk image of Earth will be returned every 10 minutes

One of the major innovations is the inclusion of a camera to detect lightning. Agencies believe this will be a boon to what they call “nowcasting” – the ability to track and warn of impending and dangerous events. Indeed, lightning is a tracer of violent gusts of wind, heavy precipitation and hail.

It has long been possible to track lightning from its radio frequency emissions, but much of it is air-to-ground strikes, and 90% of lightning is air-to-air or intra-cloud.

“The new Meteosat instrument is set to be a game-changer,” said Simon Keogh of the UK Met Office. “That will give us a much better idea of ​​total lightning. It’s something we need to know if we’re planning helicopter operations in the North Sea, for example. Similarly, if there’s any hazardous material being unloaded planes, even passengers, we need to know if there is a risk of lightning,” he told BBC News.

The next-generation system will eventually see three spacecraft working in unison.

A second imager will go up in 2026 to acquire more quickly – every 2.5 minutes – images of Europe only. Before that, in 2024, a “probe” spacecraft will be launched to sample temperature and humidity in the atmosphere.

With replacement satellites already ordered for the first working trio, Europe has guaranteed coverage well into the 2040s.

This ability doesn’t come cheap. Member states of the European Space Agency (Esa) have funded research and development to the tune of €1.4bn (£1.2bn). Eumetsat countries are bearing the ongoing costs which are expected to amount to €2.9bn (£2.5bn).

Flash

The inclusion of a lightning imager should be a game changer

“It’s a long process with trade-offs,” said Paul Blythe, who led Meteosat development for ESA.

“Some of the sensing elements and optical elements that we have on board have taken six, seven, eight years to materialize from the initial definition of the requirements through a lot of development work and finally the integration of the product into the satellite. After that, you have to qualify the whole system, it’s not a quick activity.

“We will benefit from an economy of scale by buying six satellites at a time. If you only buy three or four, it is clear that the next generation will cost even more.”

While €4.3bn (£3.7bn) still seems like a lot of money, it’s worth acknowledging the returns that come with good weather forecasts.

From giving the public the confidence to go about their daily lives, helping to reduce accidents on the roads or enabling sectors such as aviation and shipping to operate more efficiently – there is clear added value for the economy that repeated analyzes have found to be worth billions every year.

Meteosat-12 is due to launch on its Ariane rocket from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana at 5:30 p.m. local time (20:30 GMT).

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