Europe's latest weather eye set for launch

Meteosat-10 in the cleanroom (TAS) Meteosat-10, as the spacecraft will become known, is ready for launch this summer

It's hard to overstate the importance of a weather forecast.

To most of us, most of the time, it's just a bit of information that influences which piece of clothing we grab as we leave the house. But every day, all over the world, weather forecasts will also be driving much more significant decision-making.

Some of these decisions will have a lot of money attached to them, like altering the routes of container ships and airliners to take advantage of favourable winds; or changing the volumes of certain produce despatched to supermarket stores because consumer purchases are influenced by temperature.

And then there will be what are literally life or death decisions, such as choosing not to take a particular journey because there's a violent storm coming.

All depend on solid meteorological data and the skill of the people who interpret it to provide our forecasts.

In Europe, this is a really big year for our weather agencies because they get two new satellites that will be absolutely crucial to their work.

One is another polar-orbiting spacecraft called Metop-B, due for launch in May (see previous posting). The other is the latest model in the long-running Meteosat series, which will sit in a "stationary" position 36,000km (22,400 miles) above the equator.

The Meteosats have been providing data since the late 1970s and we are now on the "second generation" (MSG) of spacecraft that were introduced in 2002 to substantially increase the flow and quality of information coming from orbit.

Meteosat-10, as it will be known, should launch in June. It will take pictures of developing weather systems and beam its data back to Earth for immediate analysis and input into numerical weather models.

When the TV presenter shows you the clouds sweeping across the country at the end of the evening news - that'll be Meteosat.

TV forecast Forecasts incorporate a range of data drawn from satellites, balloons, radar and fixed stations

The information is acquired at huge expense. In fact, these satellite programmes are so costly that European nations have clubbed together in an organisation called Eumetsat to share the burden. The latest Meteosat series, for example, is priced at some 2.2bn euros (£1.75bn).

The natural desire for fiscal efficiency demanded that the four spacecraft built for the programme were all made at the same time (it's cheaper to mass produce), even though their launch would have to be staggered to provide continuity of operation over 20 years. (Each satellite has a design life in orbit of seven years, so four overlapping platforms give you two decades' service.)

Of course, the consequence of this approach means you end up having a lot of very valuable, high-precision engineering sitting in store. Meteosat-10, the third platform to fly, has spent eight years on the ground waiting to make its ascent to orbit.

Meteosat-11, the last of the second-generation spacecraft, won't get to the launchpad for another three years at least.

The spacecraft haven't exactly gathered dust because they've been kept in an environmentally controlled cleanroom, but it's been an interesting situation for engineers to see some of their best endeavours sit in a corner for a decade and do nothing.

Alain Ratier: 'MSG is still a state of the art system'

When Meteosat-10 was pulled out of store, it was given a thorough check-over. The concern might be that some components or sub-systems had degraded over time. As it turns out, very little has required attention.

"We have observed some minor degradation in some materials, such as the Velcro used to attach insulation," says Jean-Jacques Juillet from manufacturer Thales Alenia Space in Cannes, France.

"This has been understood and we have exchanged the parts. For the rest, no significant problem has been encountered and we are ready for launch as expected."

Meteosat image of Europe Meteosats are now sending down detailed images of Europe every five minutes

There is, however, another, and perhaps more pressing, concern that follows from the build-and-store approach - and that relates to technological obsolescence.

Jean-Jacques Juillet: 'The satellites are made in batches'

The present Meteosats were designed in the 1990s; their hardware is a world away from what you could conceivably put into a weather spacecraft today.

So it's paramount you squeeze as much performance as possible out of the existing equipment.

There are two ways of doing this. The first is to use the Meteosats in novel ways.

Originally, it was envisaged that as each spacecraft was launched, it would take over observing duties from its predecessor, which would then become the on-standby reserve. But Eumetsat found that it could substantially add value to the type of data acquired if the back-up was used in a different observing mode.

Today, one Meteosat builds images of the entire field of view - a full Earth disc - in 15 minutes, while the second spacecraft rapidly scans a smaller area covering Europe, to provide more detailed imagery in just five minutes.


MSG artist's impression (Esa)
  • Europe's 1st imaging satellite (800kg) was launched in 1977; it was sensitive to a limited number of wavelengths (3 channels)
  • Today's 2nd generation imager (above) has 12 channels; it's a 2-tonne class spacecraft. Four satellites were built for this series
  • The planned 3rd generation imager will be a 3-tonne satellite with 16 channels. A second platform will see the different atmospheric layers
  • The latest satellites deliver 20 times the volume of data compared with their predecessors. The next generation will see a 100-fold increase again

This allows the weather agencies to better follow the development of powerful and potentially dangerous thunderstorms.

The other way to push the system is to make the data work harder.

"To do this, we need to innovate on the ground, to infuse science into the processing to extract more information from the observations, which remain the same across the generation of satellites. So, you learn new ways to use the data," explains Alain Ratier, the director-general of Eumetsat.

"We are now better able to forecast intense storms from water vapour images. Another example is volcanic ash - MSG was not produced to detect ash but the scientists are now developing new algorithms to extract concentration in the atmosphere which is key for aviation.

"Another example is mapping fog, which is done by integrating Meteosat data with information from other sources. And this of course is very important for transport.

"We need to be innovative, but we also need to be cost-efficient which relates to the way we procure satellites. We cannot have Olympic-type investment cycles because it would result in a much bigger financial burden on our member states.

"But I can say confidently that Meteosat-10 will be the most capable imaging mission in geostationary orbit today."

Obviously, there comes a point where old systems cannot be stretched any further and you simply have to move to newer technology.

That's why a third generation of Meteosats has just been ordered. This will cost 3.4bn euros to guarantee space-borne meteorological data until 2040. The first of these satellite is likely to fly in 2018.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    As a side issue, why do weather bulletins feel the need to tell us what the weather was like earlier in the day? is this relevant to anyone? I mean, I either know because I was there or I wasn't there and it's now irrelevant

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Today's 5-day forecast is as accurate as 3-day forecasts were in the 1980s. Much of this is due to improved use of satellite data. A number of the above comments cause me to wonder about the general level of understanding about science and environmental issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    To answer 15 Robert Lucien, satellite lifetime is usually constrained by the fuel needed to power the rocket motors that keep it in the appropriate orbit. Good flight control software can maintain position with minimal adjustments, therefore extending the operational lifetime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Why don't we just accept that we can have an educated guess but at the end of the day, Mother nature can NOT be predicted

    Even if we could predict 99% accurate all it would need is a volcano to erupt, a tidal wave, avalanche or any number of unpredictable events to through all calculations out!

    We can predict, or if you prefer, give an educated guess but we will never be 100% correct 100% time

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    #13 - Thousands of ships, platforms and oil rigs still send in observations, some hourly, some of them launch weather bouys, some are automated and some vessels are quite sophisticated in the level of equipment used and there was at least one cruise ship that had a weather lab on board open to the public. Try searching for 'Voluntary Observing Ships'

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Continuation to number 14.
    So I contacted the BBC and kindly asked them to stop all local weather forecasting because no forecast is better than a permanently wrong one. Then I would be forced to use my own judgement, which can only be an improvement. So when they say that better forecasts will be made with this new system it is a no-brainer. OF COURSE BECAUSE IT CAN'T GET WORSE!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Wow a very complicated and expensive system. I'm curious as to what fails in the old Meteosats that limits their lifespan in space. Is it fuel, radiation exposure, simple entropy, or is it just a design spec per number of hours use? Like some other sats could they keep working for years or even decades beyond their design lifetime?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    re #11 Martin.

    I agree. couple of years ago we were planning to go out in the afternoon for a picnic with my granchildren. I looked at the weather forecast (a big mistake) which forecast heavy permanent rain. We decided that this would be difficult with the small children so we went to the matinee cinema instead.
    Yes, you have guessed it. Beautiful sunshine all afternoon, perfect for picnic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    As Michael Fish found out the best weather forecast comes from ground observations from out at sea. Upto the 60s we had thousands of ships in the atlantic feeding in regular data which a satellite cannot see or detect. Thats where our weather comes from not space or computer models.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Mrs Odicean says that every time we launch a satellite we CHANGE the weather. Every satellite, every launch into orbit, every disturbance of the upper atmosphere will have a knock-on effect in some way or another on the weather. That's why it's foggy in Sidcup this morning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    it is a commonplace for me to look at the BBC weather web site and find it staggeringly inaccurate. You know the sort of thing, it tell's me it is currently raining in Sevenoaks, whilst a glance out of the window reveals a cloudless sky. Now, I'm pretty sure it was raining somewhere and if this device enables the BBC to marry together their weather prediction with location, then I will be content.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Today's weather - it will be overcast with satellites causing the cool temperatures being experienced around the globe. There will be no rain in the future due to lack of sunlight to create evaporation. The good news, mobile networks have increased by 10 fold and lines are now open to discuss your thoughts on the weather.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    They can put sophisticated, expensive, satellites into space, it’s the interpreting that’s askew. I like #8’s thoughts. City dwellers amongst all that concrete have no idea how to read the weather from what’s happening around them, country folks do. Ever smelled the rain on the breeze before it reached you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    They tell us the satellite contains all kinds of fancy gadgets but in reality it has a fir cone, a piece of seaweed and a camera that can detect if the cows are lying down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The weather will always be able to trick technology; however, the new weather satellite is an excellent concept, and if it can predict the weather better that's always a good thing. Predicting accurate forcasts have saved billions of dollars, and have saved many lives. Now scientists need to develope ways to predict earth quakes and other dangerous aspects that can come out of not knowing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I won't be impressed until weather satellites can predict what level of hurricanes will be hitting the Gulf of Mexico based on the volume and intensity of butterfly wings beating in Gambia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Mother Nature will ALWAYS be one step ahead of human technology...

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    You cannot forecast the weather in certainty....WE make sure of that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Don't forget that the MSG satellite systems can also monitor vegetation status, reflecting growing conditions through a season (insolation, temperature, precipitation, flood, drought, humidity and pest habitat) allowing a better picture of likely agricultural production in any given year. Just sayin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    once again we see irrefutable evidence of the gigantic illuminati NWO oil-glutted Zionist conspiracy designed...Ohh sorry, wrong HYS. Oops.


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