New European weather satellite takes first pictures

The first images from Europe’s new weather satellite, Meteosat-12, have just been released.

The spacecraft, which is 36,000km above the equator, was launched in December and is currently in a testing phase that will last most of this year.

When Meteosat-12 data is finally released to meteorological agencies, it is expected to bring about a dramatic shift in forecasting capabilities.

Warnings of impending and dangerous conditions should improve dramatically.

This is something called “nowcasting” – the ability to tell with greater confidence that high winds, lightning, hail or heavy downpours are about to hit a particular area.

Heavy rain in London

Meteosat-12 should help meteorologists identify those places that are about to experience extreme conditions

Part of this progress will come from the increased resolution of Meteosat-12. For previous generation satellites, a feature in a storm had to be at least 1 km wide to be detected. The new spacecraft will track features as small as 500 meters in diameter.

“We can now see very fine structures,” said Jochen Grandell of Eumetsat, the intergovernmental agency that manages Europe’s weather satellites.

“You may have heard the term ‘overshooting top,’ for example, which is a part of developing thunderstorm clouds where you may see very strong updrafts and downdrafts. These are changing very rapidly and are also very small. But they are also very powerful,” he told BBC News.

Europe has had its own meteorological spacecraft sitting high above the planet since 1977. The new imager is the third iteration in the series.

Meteosat-12 is in a “stationary” position, keeping a constant eye on Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

It will return a complete picture of the weather systems crossing the earth’s surface at a rate of one every 10 minutes, five minutes faster than hitherto. It also displays the planet in multiple wavelengths of light. Sixteen instead of the 12 previously available.

The additional bands of light allow for true color images. In other words, the images are much closer to what the human eye would perceive if it were looking down from the same vantage point.

“The first time we received the data, there were great emotions because we could see the high quality of the sensor,” recalled Eumetsat colleague Alessandro Burini.

“The optical quality of the images, the radiometry, the navigation – in other words the accuracy of the position of individual pixels in an image – is very good indeed.”


Illustration: The nearly 4-ton satellite is 36,000 km above the equator

The new third generation system will eventually comprise a trio of spacecraft working in unison.

A second imager will go up in 2026 to capture images faster – every 2.5 minutes – of Europe alone. Before that, in 2024, a “sound” spacecraft will be launched to sample temperature and humidity through the atmosphere.

With replacement satellites already ordered for the first functional trio, Europe has guaranteed coverage until 2040.

The overall cost is expected to be around €4.3 billion (£3.7 billion).

Comparison of wavelengths

Comparison of wavelengths

If that sounds like a lot of money (and it is), it pales next to the value society accrues from accurate weather forecasting — in preventing loss of life, damage to infrastructure, and economic disruption.

Repeated analyzes have estimated the benefits in the tens of billions each year across Europe.

National forecasting agencies, such as the UK’s Met Office, Meteo France and DWD (Germany’s weather service), are expected to regularly feed Meteosat-12 information into their supercomputers early next year.

Image comparison

Image comparison

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *