Weather satellites kind of quietly go about their business. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a fleet of low-earth orbiting and geostationary satellites that provide critical information about our weather on a daily basis. These satellites monitor severe thunderstorms, track hurricanes, detect wildfires and even provide vital data for our weather prediction models. However, this week the NOAA GOES East captured three aspects of the SpaceX Starship launch – the condensation trail, its shadow, and an “unscheduled disassembly.” I’ll explain.
On April 20th, 2023, the Starship rocket blasted off from SpaceX’s Starbase facility on the souther Texas coast. The the 394-foot-tall Starship is reportedly the largest and most powerful rocket constructed to date. Mike Wall and Tariq Malik covered the launch for Space.com. They wrote, “The goal was to get Starship to a maximum altitude of about 145 miles (233 km), then bring it barreling back into Earth’s atmosphere for a trial-by-fire reentry, ending with a hard splashdown in the Pacific Ocean not far from the Hawaiian island of Kauai about 90 minutes after liftoff.” That didn’t happen.
NOAA’s geostationary satellite (GOES EAST) monitors weather in the eastern continental U.S. It captured the condensation trail of the rocket and its shadow. By the way, condensation trails are simply condensed water vapor from the airplane or rocket engines. The Starship “contrail” (1) can be seen in the image at the top of the article. The shadow is labeled as (2) on the same image.
A relatively new instrument aboard the satellite captured something too. The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) was placed on the latest generation of GOES satellites to better assess severe weather, flood potential and more. However, it can detect other “flashes” as well. According to the National Weather Service (NWS) Facebook page, the GLM captured what SpaceX called an “unscheduled disassembly.” The NWS page went on to say, “GLM Extent Density of Lightning is the number of lightning flashes that occur within a grid cell over a given period of time….the rocket’s explosion flash was so large that it was picked up by the lightning mapper.” It is labeled (3) in the image above.
Geostationary weather satellites are placed in very high-altitude (~23,000 miles up) orbits so that they remained fixed relative to a location on the planet. It is often referred to as a “geosynchronous” orbit. Such orbits are good for monitoring rapidly evolving weather or transmitting your satellite television signals. Lower-altitude polar orbiters are useful as well because of their greater spatial detail, but they only get snapshots of weather systems in a given 1-2 day period. Though the GOES series of satellites have been around for decades, the GLM is relatively new. It was first launched in 2016. According to NASA website, “it is a satellite-borne single channel, near-infrared optical transient detector.” The imagery below shows lightning flashes captured by the GLM off the coast of Texas as Hurricane Harvey (2017) approached.
For current GLM flashes in the U.S., visit this website.