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Satellite turns its eye on fatal Texas storms


Clear, close images may help predict tornadoes

May 29, 1997
Web posted at: 11:46 p.m. EDT (0346 GMT)

If there is a silver lining in the funnel clouds that struck Texas Tuesday night, it may come from high above the destruction.

Satellite images released by NASA Thursday allow researchers to watch the rapid development of the killer storms more clearly than was previously possible, and may someday help researchers predict which storms will spawn tornadoes.

Although the images don't show the tornadoes themselves -- the GOES-8 satellite can see above the clouds, and the tornadoes are beneath -- Ed Zipser of Texas A&M University says data from the satellite lets scientists compare images and Doppler radar data from both above and on the ground.

NASA shows us what the tornado in
Texas looks like from a satellite view.

movie icon (1.3M/19 sec. Large frame QuickTime movie)
movie icon (595K/19 sec. Small frame QuickTime movie)

Zipser points out telltale signs of the storm's strength: extremely rapid expansion of the storm clouds and V-shaped notches downwind of the tallest cloud formations. But Zipser cautions that predicting tornadoes remains "a research puzzle."

The images, which span 36 hours Tuesday and Wednesday, came from one of two Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites in orbit over the United States. GOES-8 is stationed 22,000 miles above the western United States, while its partner, GOES-9, hovers over the East Coast.

The GOES satellites are "body-stabilized" satellites, according to Tim Tomastick of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The satellites remain fixed over the same point on Earth and can be focused much more reliably than older, spinning weather satellites.

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