New satellite to watch Earth, sun storms
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- A new environmental satellite that will keep a close watch on both terrestrial and solar storms has beamed back its first image from space, a scenic shot of Earth.
The orbiter will track hurricanes, photograph clouds, measure temperature and moisture levels, as well as monitor the sun for intense bursts of radiation that periodically slam into the Earth.
Launched July 23, the U.S. weather satellite known as GOES-12 sent back a clear panorama of its home planet after settling into an orbit 22,300 miles high, mission managers said last week.
"The image quality is excellent," said Martin David, the NASA director for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program.
NASA sent the satellite into space for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which uses meteorological and climate data from the GOES fleet to predict weather in the United States.
The newest addition will backup GOES-8 and GOES-10, which for years have served as mainstays in U.S. storm forecasting, perched high in geostationary orbit above the East and West Coasts.
Taking solar X-rays
Unlike its predecessors, GOES-12 has the ability to track space weather. The orbiter, the first GOES satellite equipped with a solar X-ray Imager, will help scientists predict when turbulent flares from the sun head in our direction.
Such outbursts can disrupt electrical grids and satellite and radio communications. The X-ray Imager will take a full picture of the sun's atmosphere once every minute.
The solar images should be available soon on the Web site of NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado: http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/stp/stp.html.
After a series of tests, the X-ray images should become available by September 7, said Vic Pizzo, a physicist at the NOAA Space Environment Center in Boulder.
"Then we will be viewing the sun pretty much around the clock," he said.
GOES-12 should nicely compliment two other satellites that watch the sun. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory focuses in ultraviolet light and longer X-rays. The Yoko orbiter trains on the shortest X-rays. GOES-12, however, will concentrate on middle range X-rays.
"We have reason to believe that we will see some interesting phenomenon that we cannot see with the other satellites," Pizzo said.
The two GOES satellites currently in operation were launched in 1997 and 1994. The spacecraft were designed to last five years and the older one has already shown signs of mortality. GOES-8 switched to a backup system after its primary one malfunctioned.
GOES-11, which launched in 2000, is also in orbiting storage, ready to go into service should one of the aging GOES fails. Another GOES went into orbit in 1995 but technical problems forced flight controllers to shut it down.
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