European Space Agency shows off flashy Lightning Imager capabilities

Lightning data can be used by forecasters to predict severe weather, even in remote regions and over the ocean.

Forecasters in Europe and Africa now have real-time images of lightning in the atmosphere after European Space Agency’s new Lightning Imager has been turned on. 

The instrument built by Leonardo is part of the Meteosat Third Generation satellite, which launched on Dec. 13 on the Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana. The Lightning Imager can detect lightning 24 hours a day over 84% of the Earth.

"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," said Leonardo, Project Engineering Manager for the Lightning Imager Guia Pastorini.

ESA and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (Eumetsat) released several animations showing the rapid-fire flashes captured by the Lightning Imager.

According to the ESA, each animation contains a sequence of images with one minute of lightning measurements.

A five-day animation over Central Africa shows lightning activity. According to the ESA, the region is considered one of the most active areas for lightning in the world. During the Atlantic hurricane season, thunderstorm clusters from this region can develop into tropical waves, eventually becoming hurricanes that impact the Caribbean and the U.S.

Eventually, this data will be used by forecasters to predict severe weather, even in remote regions and over the ocean. 

Changes in lightning can be linked to severe weather. An increase in lightning can indicate a tornado is forming amid an intense thunderstorm. 

The Lightning Imager will also help air traffic controllers determine the lightning risk to aircraft. 

U.S. meteorologists will recognize a similar capability with NOAA’s GOES series satellites that have an instrument known as the Geostationary Lightning Mapper or GLM, which covers North America and part of South America.

ESA’s lightning imager is the first real-time instrument to detect lightning across Europe and Africa. It also has cameras covering the Middle East and parts of South America. 

The initial results from the Lightning Imager are promising.


"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," Eumetsat Director General Phil Evans said in a statement.

Now in orbit, all the Meteosat Third Generation Imager instruments are undergoing commissioning and testing. The satellite data should be ready for operational use early next year.