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Satellites and astronauts track Tropical Storm Elsa from space (photos)

Satellites and the crew on the International Space Station crew are tracking the progress of the record-breaking deadly Tropical Storm Elsa as it moves along the Florida coast. 

The state was under a hurricane warning overnight from Tuesday into Wednesday (July 6 into July 7), with high winds expected all along the East Coast of the United States through Friday, according to a forecast (opens in new tab) from the National Hurricane Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The storm, which formed on July 1, is the earliest-forming fifth named storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Typically it takes until the end of August to have so many intense storms in this region, although last year, Tropical Storm Edouard formed on July 6, 2020, NOAA said in a separate update (opens in new tab) Tuesday. (Hurricane season (opens in new tab) in the Atlantic runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 of each year.)

Related: Hurricane season 2021: How long it lasts and what to expect (opens in new tab)

Tropical Storm Elsa as photographed in the Caribbean by NASA astronaut Megan McArthur from the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

"Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters found #Elsa's max sustained winds are near 70 mph [110 kph]," the National Hurricane Center tweeted on Tuesday (opens in new tab) along with a picture of the tropical storm making landfall in Florida, as seen through the eyes of the NOAA GOES-East satellite. The newest GOES generation of satellites are optimized to track extreme weather, including lightning from orbit.

The NOAA Satellites Twitter account paid tribute to that capability of Goes EAST in a separate tweet Tuesday (opens in new tab), along with an animation showing points of lightning across the continental United States. "Not only can we see lots of lightning thanks to the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, but we can also see #Elsa making its way toward Florida," the account stated. 

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Meanwhile, the NOAA Satellites account tweeted on Tuesday (opens in new tab) a dramatic animation showing bursts of lightning throughout Elsa, which GOES East captured while the storm was just approaching Florida.

NASA is also tracking the storm through the NASA-NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite that captures high-definition hemispheric views of Earth. The agency sent out a tweet of the satellite's view of tropical storm Elsa over Jamaica on Sunday (opens in new tab) (July 4). The storm left at least three people dead after devastating the Caribbean, NBC News said (opens in new tab) that day.

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Weather satellites in geosynchronous orbit are crucial in making predictions for large storms and hurricanes, which are increasing in intensity and frequency (opens in new tab) as global warming accelerates. Additionally, crews on the International Space Station may take imagery of storms if time allows from their perch at 250 miles (400 km) in altitude, providing a closer viewpoint.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.