Lightning comes and goes in brilliant and terrifying flashes. With powerful enough satellites in orbit, all that crackling static in the world’s sky is being watched.
The latest visualization of atmospheric electricity comes from Meteosat Third Generation, a European satellite launched in December. Its cameras can track and record lightning, even the smallest and fastest, day and night, over more than 80 percent of the Earth’s surface. It was the first of six such satellites that will later track weather around the world.
The European Space Agency released the first set of images from the Meteosat orbiter last week, revealing lightning over regions of Western Europe, Africa and South America. The agency shared the images as it calibrated the satellite with its partners before making it fully operational by the end of this year.
The satellite’s Lightning Imager has four cameras, each with five lenses. The cameras can capture a single flash that lasts just 0.6 milliseconds, much faster than the blink of an eye, and it can take clear images at 1,000 images per second.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States has been tracking lightning in North and South America since 2017, using the Geostationary Lightning Mapper on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, known as GOES. The European system expands lightning detection to regions of Europe, Africa and the Middle East (with overlapping coverage in parts of South America), and provides significant technological improvements that will provide a wealth of data for the world’s weather forecasters.
“First, we have better resolution,” said Guia Pastorini, a project engineering manager at Leonardo SpA, the aerospace company that developed the imager on Meteosat. “We are able to detect even a single flash, whereas GOES can only detect a group of events. And in terms of energy, we can detect weaker flashes.”
The imager’s data will be useful in weather forecasting, said Carlo Simoncelli, program manager at Leonardo. Lightning is associated with tornadoes, and there is a large increase in lightning that remains within clouds about half an hour before a tornado. Mr. Simoncelli said that being able to spot this from space “gives us the ability for early warning of events that can be catastrophic.”
That the system always works and produces data in all conditions is a big advantage. “It’s pretty simple to identify lightning at night in the desert,” Ms Pastorini said. “But if you’re looking at lightning reflecting off the ocean or just during the day, it’s much more difficult.”
Steve Goodman, a recently retired senior scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration who spent the last 10 years working on the GOES satellites’ Geostationary Lightning Mapper, noted that the European systems were based on decades-old ideas. In some far northern latitudes, he said, the resolution of the cameras will not be better than the American satellites. But he also said that the overall greater resolution of the European imager helped detect smaller and weaker flashes.
“They’ve built a very good system, and all their data will be shared,” he said.
Whatever the system used, tracking lightning and its relationship to the intensity of hurricanes and tornadoes has important benefits for airline pilots, climate scientists and ordinary citizens, Dr. Goodman said.
“Emergency workers need to accurately warn people,” he said, “not too soon, because that costs money, and not too late, because that costs lives.”