Planetary defense has new tool in weather satellite lightning detector

August 1, 2018, NASA
On December 29, 2017, the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, an instrument flying on board two weather satellites, detected a bright meteor in Earth’s atmosphere over the western Atlantic Ocean. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

NASA's efforts to better understand asteroid impacts has found unexpected support from a new satellite sensor designed to detect lightning. New research published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that the new Geostationary Lightning Mapper, or GLM, on two weather satellites is able to pick up signals of meteors in Earth's atmosphere.

"GLM detects these meteors when they become brighter than the full Moon," says lead author and meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. "Meteors that bright are called 'bolides' and they are caused mainly by the impact of small asteroids."

Jenniskens' work on meteors contributes to the NASA Ames Asteroid Threat Assessment Program, which helps improve information for impact prediction warnings by studying how asteroids fragment as they travel through the atmosphere.

"The range of altitudes over which asteroids deposit their kinetic energy—the energy of their motion—determines how dangerous the shock waves are that can cause damage on the ground," says Eric Stern, a research scientist at Ames who is the entry modeling lead for the program. "The light profiles derived from GLM data are slated now to be used in a future version of NASA's automated bolide reporting system."

The Geostationary Lightning Mapper, built by Lockheed Martin, was designed for mapping lightning flashes over vast geographic regions. The instrument captures 500 images per second of Earth from geostationary orbit, in which the satellite is always in the same position with respect to the rotating Earth, more than 22,000 miles up.

The bright flash produced by the December 2017 meteor was picked up by the Geostationary Lightning Mapper. This image shows one moment of that meteor event, which released three kilotons of energy into the atmosphere. In the image inset, red represents the bright meteor, while blue indicates the faint light reflected off the ocean surface and the signal caused by the instrument recovering from the bright exposure. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

"The instrument views Earth in only a narrow range of wavelengths of light," said Samantha Edgington, GLM chief scientist at Lockheed Martin, who led the effort to develop the processing pipeline that now provides lightning data to weather forecasters. "Since most of the light is blocked, we were surprised to see how readily the instrument detected the ."

GLM is one of several instruments onboard the new Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites-16 and -17, which are operated by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration.

"Although most lightning flashes are very brief, the relatively long-duration signals of bolides are not filtered out of the data," said NOAA physical scientist Scott Rudlosky. "That's because GLM also was designed to measure a longer-lasting lightning type that is known to play a key role in -ignited wild fires."

The ten bolides discussed in the paper were observed with the first GLM instrument on board GOES-16, which was launched in November 2016.

Planetary defense has new tool in weather satellite lightning detector
Slow-motion movie of the December 2017 meteor impacting Earth's atmosphere. Individual pixels in the Geostationary Lightning Mapper's sensor are illuminated in successive frames. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

"The first bolide we found in GLM data was on Feb. 6, 2017; more than 500 people reported seeing this event over Wisconsin that day," said Jenniskens. "Meteorites likely fell in Lake Michigan but were never recovered."

Other detected bolides show different manners of fragmentation. They include one that caused a meteorite fall in Canada and another large, explosive event over the western Atlantic Ocean of a rare size that occurs only once a year.

Explore further: Flashy first images arrive from NOAA's GOES-16 lightning mapper

More information: Peter Jenniskens et al. Detection of meteoroid impacts by the Geostationary Lightning Mapper on the GOES-16 satellite, Meteoritics & Planetary Science (2018). DOI: 10.1111/maps.13137

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13 comments

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cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 02, 2018
"Since most of the light is blocked, we were surprised to see how readily the instrument detected the meteors."

It's because the meteorites are discharging electrically in Earth's atmosphere. It is the only legitimate explanation as to why the lightning mapper can detect.
691Boat
5 / 5 (5) Aug 02, 2018
"Since most of the light is blocked, we were surprised to see how readily the instrument detected the meteors."

It's because the meteorites are discharging electrically in Earth's atmosphere. It is the only legitimate explanation as to why the lightning mapper can detect.

Or the meteor's luminosity from burning in our atmosphere is above the threshold they set to prevent false positives while looking for lightning.
But yeah, your fun electric discharge theory makes more sense.
barakn
4 / 5 (5) Aug 02, 2018
CD might be on to something. I bet NASA is lying to us and the satellite doesn't really "map" lightning, it's just a communications satellite with a direct link to the god Thor. Thor tells NASA whenever he strikes, including tossing bolts at every largish pebble that comes our way.
rrwillsj
5 / 5 (1) Aug 02, 2018
And still no photos of flying saucers! Bummer!

Butt hay, the gibbering woomongers of invisible lightning bolts are happy? Whom ain't I to complain?
LagomorphZero
5 / 5 (1) Aug 02, 2018
planetary defense? seems a little bit late to defend against meteors /after/ they've hit the earth..
rrwillsj
4 / 5 (2) Aug 03, 2018
LZ, even after catastrophe, the paperwork has to be done...
in triplicate....
amended...
position papers issued...
news releases released...
scapegoats found to take the blame...
righteous fulminations in Congress blaming dastardly immigrants....
And Trumpety Boy tweeting frantically that the Uranus Conspiracy is out to get him!
cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 03, 2018
Or the meteor's luminosity from burning in our atmosphere is above the threshold they set to prevent false positives while looking for lightning.

The instruments are designed to look specifically for the electric discharge of lightning, not just bright lights. It takes certain wavelengths to be observed, electric discharge is the common thread.
Captain Stumpy
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 03, 2018
@idiot eu cult proselytizing acolyte
The instruments are designed to look specifically for the electric discharge of lightning, not just bright lights. It takes certain wavelengths to be observed, electric discharge is the common thread.
if only there were somewhere that would indicate how GOES-16's GLM works... oh wait:
https://www.goes-..._GLM.pdf

The GOES-16 Geostationary Lightning Mapper "is a single-channel, near-infrared optical transient detector that captures the momentary changes in an optical scene, indicating the presence of lightning"
carbon_unit
5 / 5 (4) Aug 03, 2018
LZ, I imagine that an accurate assay of the smaller, non-catastrophic stuff is of value in assessing the threat.

CD, As Stumpy points out, the detector is looking in the near-infrared. The common thread is heat.
cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Aug 03, 2018
CD, As Stumpy points out, the detector is looking in the near-infrared. The common thread is heat.

Why then the surprise at observing the phenomena?
"Since most of the light is blocked, we were surprised to see how readily the instrument detected the meteors."

If it were as simple as Cap'n Stoopid would like to believe then the scientists shouldn't be surprised.
691Boat
5 / 5 (2) Aug 03, 2018
CD, As Stumpy points out, the detector is looking in the near-infrared. The common thread is heat.

Why then the surprise at observing the phenomena?
"Since most of the light is blocked, we were surprised to see how readily the instrument detected the meteors."

If it were as simple as Cap'n Stoopid would like to believe then the scientists shouldn't be surprised.

Since it is an optical CCD based system, they were likely surprised that it did catch it because it means that it was likely an abnormally bright meteor. I know in my lab, we don't tend to use our CCD imagers to measure electrical current, but maybe we are stoopid too?
carbon_unit
5 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2018
LZ, I imagine that an accurate assay of the smaller, non-catastrophic stuff is of value in assessing the threat.
And on further thought, the system may pick up dangerous (Chelyabinsk class or greater) events that might otherwise go unnoticed because they happened over the ocean. This would let us know the level of these events more accurately and hence be able to judge the need for action.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2018
Since it is an optical CCD based system, they were likely surprised that it did catch it because it means that it was likely an abnormally bright meteor.I know in my lab, we don't tend to use our CCD imagers to measure electrical current, but maybe we are stoopid too?

Funny how they decided to use CCD imagers to detect lightning. That said, you may be onto something.

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