October 24, 2008

US Plans $7.6B Super Storm Tracker

By Oren Dorell

The U.S. government is looking to launch a new and powerful weather satellite that will be better able to pinpoint where hurricanes and tornadoes may strike.

The Geostationary Orbiting Environmental Satellite, called GOES-R, will possess technologies not found in weather satellites such as the ability to photograph hurricane storm tracks every 30 seconds and capture images of cloud-to-cloud lightning that can precede tornadoes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will award the contract for the nearly $8 billion system in December.

"If you tighten the error associated with the storm track, that means fewer people you have to evacuate, which saves money, and getting the timing right saves lives," said Mike Ruggles, program director for the Geostationary Orbiting Environmental Satellite at Raytheon.

Raytheon is one of two companies competing to process the data produced by the satellite.

Ruggles said he hopes the satellite will give a five-day hurricane forecast the accuracy of a three-day forecast.

Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at private forecasting company Weather Underground, agreed the satellite will provide better short-term predictions about a storm's intensity.

He said he does not believe that the satellite will improve landfall predictions for hurricanes by more than "another few percent."

The $7.6 billion system, which includes ground support and two satellites, is scheduled to be launched in 2015.

NASA has been launching weather satellites since the 1950s. Current satellites, which orbit at an altitude of 22,300 miles over the same spot, have been in space since the early 1980s, and will quit working soon because of old age.

The new satellites will scan the continental USA every five minutes, compared with every 15 minutes now. It will take a snapshot of a storm area every 30 seconds, compared with every 7.5 minutes now, says Steve Goodman, NOAA's program scientist for GOES-R.

The lightning mapper, a first, will help forecasters predict tornadoes that often form in severe thunderstorms, NOAA said. Most tornado warning times, now 13 minutes on average, will grow by 50%, Goodman says.

"Anytime you can have more accurate information and have more time to prepare for a potential strike of a hurricane will be beneficial," says Mark Sloan, emergency management coordinator for Harris County, Texas.

(c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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