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Atlas 5 launches the most advanced US weather satellite in history – Spaceflight Now


CAPE CANAVERAL — Revolutionizing the way American meteorologists view the weather, compared to the advancement of black-and-white television to modern high-definition television, a new observatory was successfully launched on Saturday by an Atlas 5 rocket to serve as a pivot to predict what tomorrow will bring.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket with the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R, or GOES-R, lifted away from Cape Canaveral at 6:42 p.m. EST (2342 GMT).

The launch was delayed an hour while engineers checked that a potential issue with a component from another rocket was not a threat to the Atlas, then worked on an undisclosed issue with the East range .

But those issues were resolved in time for liftoff to occur at the very last moment of the day’s one-hour launch opportunity.

“The flight hardware performed wonderfully throughout the count and the weather was perfect,” said Omar Baez, NASA launch director.

Liftoff begins three and a half hours of highly complex maneuvers and engine firings in space that propelled the 11,500-pound spacecraft into a custom elliptical orbit spanning 5,000 to 22,000 miles and inclined 10 degrees , using the capabilities of the Atlas-Centaur to save the precious fuel reserve on board the satellite.

At 2214 EST (0314 GMT), GOES-R was deployed to free-fly, then deployed its power-generating solar panel minutes later, beginning a 20-year lifespan by observing weather in the Western Hemisphere – especially the continental United States. — with unprecedented resolution and speed.

It was the 138th successful launch in a row for the Atlas program over 23 years, the 67th for the Atlas 5 over a 14-year period, the second in just 8 days, and extended the United Launch Alliance mission record to 113 in nearly 10 years. .

“NASA chose one of the most reliable launch vehicles in the world to deliver the GOES-R spacecraft into orbit,” said Scott Messer, NASA Missions Program Manager at United Launch Alliance.

Official launch photo.  Credit: United Launch Alliance
Official launch photo. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Additionally, it also represented the 100th milestone flight of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program by the combined Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket fleets. Both families were created commercially, with Air Force start-up funds, to meet the national needs of the United States.

EELV has launched at least 633,000 pounds of cargo into space, and that’s not counting 27 flights with classified payload masses that likely pushes the total to nearly a million pounds in 100 flights.

All 100 EELV launches have been deemed successful by customers for each, which range from military satellites to spy satellites and civilian science missions to commercial spacecraft.

“GOES-R is a historic mission. It will be the most sophisticated weather satellite NOAA has ever operated, featuring new technology never seen before and used in geostationary orbit for forecasting,” said NOAA GOES-R program manager Greg Mandt.

The Lockheed Martin-built craft is the first of four to be launched through 2024, ensuring U.S. weather observations through at least 2036 as part of an $11 billion development effort. Satellites promise to dramatically improve the speed and accuracy of weather forecasts and warnings.

“For 40 years, we have sort of had the same simple images. Meteorologists call it a game changer because of their ability to monitor what is happening and warn the nation,” Mandt said.

Officials estimate that GOES-R will transmit more data in six months of operation than all previous GOES weather satellites combined.

The heart of GOES-R is its Advanced Baseline Imager, the sophisticated digital camera that offers more embedded data at higher resolution taken at faster intervals than ever before.

“When we see a changing weather system, we can zoom in and use that high spatial resolution to take pictures in 16 different spectral bands every 30 seconds,” said Joe Pica, director of the National Weather Service Office of Observations.

“This spectral imagery, combined with our Doppler radar data, for example, will improve our understanding of a storm’s growth or waning. This will help us track severe storms, including tornadoes, predict the movement of wildfires, track plumes from volcanic eruptions, and tell if a hurricane is intensifying.

ABI will produce 95% of GOES-R data, transferring the equivalent of 210 HD movies each day.

Current GOES satellites are capable of taking a full image of the hemisphere every 27 minutes and can zoom in on an area of ​​interest – such as a thunderstorm or hurricane – to image it every five minutes.

GOES-R will dramatically improve those times, scanning pole-to-pole every five minutes and updating the view of targeted storms every 30 seconds to better probe for rapid intensification or weakening.

And the ABI only takes 22 horizontal bands – like your cell phone camera in panorama mode – to cover the whole hemisphere, compared to 1,356 bands by the existing GOES generation.

An artist's concept of GOES-R.  Credit: NOAA
An artist’s concept of GOES-R. Credit: NOAA

“We are really excited about the increased temporal resolution to receive data for the continental United States at five minute intervals and have the ability to receive data for specific events – like hurricanes – at 30 seconds” , said Louis Uccellini, director. of the National Weather Service.

“This will give us an extraordinary ability to maintain our situational awareness of how these storms change in intensity, not just in the development phase, but as they degrade.”

ABI, manufactured by Harris Corp., uses an imaging reflectometer/radiometer with 16 detection channels covering visible, near-infrared and infrared wavelengths. Resolution ranges from 1,640 feet (0.5 km) in visible to 6,560 feet (2 km) in infrared at a distance of 22,300 miles.

It also produces real-time estimates of central pressure and maximum sustained winds to track hurricane intensity, and measures key ingredients of severe weather like winds and cloud growth to improve tornado warnings. .

Data will be sent to the ground in 0.14 seconds, quickly processed and then delivered to forecasters in 4.3 seconds.

Geostationary satellites are considered the most important tool in hurricane monitoring and forecasting, Uccellini said, and GOES-R promises to advance science by improving height specifications for atmospheric winds that steer hurricanes and monitor. permanently the health of the eye wall where the strongest winds are. located as the storm approaches the coast.

Although it won’t be operational by next summer’s hurricane season, Uccellini said meteorologists will test their algorithms at the National Hurricane Center.

When asked if the storms are getting more destructive, Uccellini said, “We’re getting more vulnerable,” like more people living along the coast.

In addition to weather forecasts, the imagery will be used to detect and characterize wildfires, analyze air pollution, monitor volcanic ash clouds, and assess vegetation.

The satellite also carries the first geostationary Lightning Mapper, an instrument made by Lockheed Martin that will take 200 images per second to detect lightning in clouds and between clouds and the ground over the Americas and surrounding ocean areas. to increase the warning time in case of severe weather. .

“The lightning detector will provide early detection of clouds that are going to affect you and provide the first signals that severe convection is actually developing,” Uccellini said.

“The doubling of spatial resolution will be incredible in terms of imaging – like comparing black and white television from the 60s to today’s 4K HD imagery,” said Mary Glackin, science and forecasting operations manager. and Senior Vice President for the Public-Private Sector. partnerships at The Weather Company.

“The Lightning Mapper is also highly anticipated. This will really help provide services such as outdoor worker safety. »

And the FAA, for example, plans to use GOES-R to get better information about the location of turbulence, improve predictions of when fog will develop or burn and affect airports, tease out the depth of smoke from forest fires and ash clouds from volcanoes. for air routes and use the lightning detector to improve visibility of storms over oceans.

GOES-R also has instruments to monitor the sun, detect solar storm flares and alert when space weather is coming to Earth. Such storms can impact communications, disrupt power grids, threaten the health of astronauts and damage satellites.

“GOES-R will produce new products that will enhance NOAA’s ability to accurately predict the weather on Earth and in space,” Mandt said.

“As researchers and forecasters learn to use all the data from this satellite, additional products will be developed to have an even greater impact on weather forecasting.”

The GOES-R satellite is expected to produce 1.75 terabytes of data products daily for the National Weather Service and other users.

“We’re ready for that data as it comes in,” Uccellini said, adding that the National Weather Service will be part of the satellite’s one-year technical verification and commissioning.

“By advancing our observing capability to their extraordinary level, we will be able to offer new and improved forecasts and warnings to save lives and property.”

The operational GOES constellation ahead of today's launch.  Credit: NOAA
The operational GOES constellation ahead of today’s launch. Credit: NOAA

The first images from the new satellite, which will be renamed GOES-16, are expected in about two months. The decision on the orbital position it will occupy should be made in about six months. And the gear’s commissioning and validation period should be complete by this time next year.

Currently, GOES-15 is the GOES-West satellite at 135 degrees west longitude and GOES-13 is the GOES-East satellite at 75 degrees west.

The GOES-14 serves as a standby in space, parked in the middle and ready to pivot to either location and enter service at any time.

The GOES-S satellite is expected to be launched in early 2018, followed by GOES-T in 2019 and GOES-U in 2024.

Satellites and instruments are clones of each other. They are built in one fell swoop with no upgrades planned.

“It’s a quantum leap we haven’t seen since the geostationary program was introduced in the 1970s,” Mandt said.

See previous GOES-R coverage.

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