European satellite captures lightning strikes


The first ever satellite instrument capable of continuously detecting lightning across Europe and Africa has now been switched on. New animations from the innovative ‘Lighting Imager’ confirm the instrument will revolutionize the detection and prediction of severe storms.

ESA along with European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat) today have released the first animations from the Lightning Imager onboard the first Meteosat Third Generation satellite, which launched on 13 December 2022.

The Lightning Imager, built by Leonardo, can continuously detect rapid flashes of lighting in Earth’s atmosphere whether day or night from a distance of 36 000 km. The instrument has four cameras covering Europe, Africa, the Middle East and parts of South America. Each camera can capture up to 1000 images per second and will continuously observe lightning activity from space.

Each animation contains a sequence of images created by collecting one minute’s worth of lightning measurements, overlaid on a single image of Earth from the Lightning Imager.

Data from the Lightning Imager will give weather forecasters greater confidence in their predictions of severe storms, particularly in remote regions and on the oceans where lightning detection capabilities are limited.

Simonetta Cheli, Director of Earth Observation Programmes at ESA, commented on the remarkable capabilities of the instrument: “The animations show the instrument’s ability to accurately and effectively detect lightning activity over the whole area of the cameras’ field of view, which covers 84% of the Earth disc.

“ESA and Eumetsat, together with European industrial partners, are ensuring the benefits of highly innovative new technology are felt by communities and sectors of the economy in Europe and beyond

The northernmost part of the field of view, that is, northern Scandinavia, never gets dark during the Northern Hemisphere summer. Local thunderstorms develop on a daily basis in southern Europe around the Mediterranean during the warmer part of the year. These storms form as the Sun heats up the ground during the day and they dissipate relatively quickly after sunset. Some much larger and more persistent tropical storm systems can be seen in west Africa in the bottom left corner of the video. The rest of Europe is mostly cloud-free as it was dominated by a large persistent high-pressure system when the data was collected. This animation was made using five days’ worth of data from the Meteosat Third Generation Lightning Imager’s north camera, from 00:00 UTC 2 June to 23:59 UTC 6 June 2023. It was made from raw preliminary data and is not for operational use. Credit: EUMETSAT/ESA

Detecting and analyzing lightning data will provide valuable support to the study of short-term weather forecasts and to understanding the consequences of such phenomena on climate change. At the same time, the Lightning Imager will also play a key role in air traffic safety, given that lightning poses a high risk to aircraft’s onboard instrumentation.

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