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Beautiful first videos from ESA's Lightning Imager, built to detect global severe storms

The European Space Agency (ESA) and Eumetsat have activated Lightning Imager — the first ever satellite instrument capable of detecting lightning and severe storm activity in a continuous manner across Europe and Africa.

The inaugural Meteosat Third Generation satellite, carrying the innovative device known as the Lightning Imager, launched into the skies on December 13, 2022.

The first animations from the Imager will revolutionize the detection and prediction of severe storms.

The Lightning Imager, situated a staggering 36,000 km from Earth, boasts an extraordinary capacity to detect swift flashes of lightning in Earth’s atmosphere. It works equally well regardless of whether it is day or night. 

Powerful technology with a sophisticated design 

Leonardo, the company responsible for the creation of the Lightning Imager, has designed the instrument with four cameras. Each camera monitors lightning activity in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and certain regions of South America.

The instrument’s ability to capture up to 1,000 images per second presents the opportunity to perpetually observe lightning activity from the confines of space.

The novelty of the Lightning Imager lies not only in its sophisticated design, but also in the data processing and presentation techniques.

Each animation rendered by the Imager is the product of a sequence of images. The system generates these images by aggregating a minute’s worth of lightning measurements and overlaying them on a single image of Earth.

Reliable data helps forecast severe storms

The introduction of the Lightning Imager into the sphere of meteorological observation holds significant promise for the enhancement of storm prediction capabilities.

Particularly for remote regions and vast oceanic expanses, where lightning detection facilities are limited, the Imager can provide meteorologists with more accurate and reliable data for storm forecasting.

“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,” said Simonetta Cheli, Director of Earth Observation Programmes at ESA. 

She further emphasized the shared endeavor of ESA, Eumetsat, and their European industrial partners in ensuring that the groundbreaking technology positively impacts communities and various sectors of the economy, extending its benefits well beyond the boundaries of Europe.

Valuable insights for storm prediction 

The Lightning Imager’s value extends beyond mere storm detection and prediction. Scientists project the device to provide valuable insights for the study of short-term weather forecasts. This amazing device will contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the impact of such phenomena on climate change

Furthermore, given the significant threat posed by lightning to aircraft instrumentation, the Imager will serve a pivotal role in the realm of air traffic safety.

“Severe storms are often preceded by abrupt changes in lightning activity. By observing these changes in activity, Lightning Imager data will give weather forecasters additional confidence in their forecasts of severe storms,” said Eumetsat Director General Phil Evans.

“When these data are used in conjunction with the high-resolution data from the Flexible Combined Imager, weather forecasters will be better able to track the development of severe storms and have a longer lead-in time to warn authorities and communities.”

Unique capabilities of Lightning Imager

Guia Pastorini, Leonardo’s project engineering manager for the Lightning Imager, discussed the unique capabilities of the instrument.

Pastorini said, “The Lightning Imager has four cameras and each one can capture 1000 images per second, day and night, detecting even a single lightning bolt faster than the blink of an eye.” 

“Thanks to specific algorithms, data is processed on board to send only useful information to Earth, supporting the development of more accurate weather forecasts, as well as contributing to the study of weather phenomena and air transport safety.

“Together with ESA and Eumetsat, and coordinating an international industrial team, Leonardo has been working on this outstanding technology for 10 years, and today we are very proud to present the images of the first European lightning hunter, the only in the world with these unique performances.”

While the animations generated by the Lightning Imager provide an initial glimpse into its capabilities, the instrument is still in its infancy. It is a component of the Meteosat Third Generation Imager, which is currently in its commissioning phase.

This important stage involves the calibration of the instruments and validation of the data produced, ensuring the accuracy and reliability of the information the satellite will provide in the future.

What’s next for the Imager project?

Scientists expect to have data from the new Imager available for operational use in early 2024. The team expects to complete the commissioning phase by then. It will offer an increased sensitivity and thus significantly advancing our ability to detect, analyze, and predict weather patterns. 

The Lightning Imager and its host, the Meteosat Third Generation Imager, are the outcome of a collaborative endeavor involving a wide consortium of European industries. The project is helmed by Thales Alenia Space in partnership with OHB.

The development of the Lightning Imager took place under the expertise of Leonardo, based in Italy, whereas Telespazio has been responsible for providing Eumetsat with essential launch and in-orbit services.

This joint effort and the innovative technologies they’ve deployed signal a transformative leap forward for meteorological science – one that holds immense promise for a better understanding of Earth’s weather.

You can access all the MTG Lightning Imager animations here.


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