Next The GOES weather satellite installed on top of the Atlas 5 rocket – Spaceflight Now

NOAA’s GOES-T weather satellite, encapsulated inside its payload fairing, was transferred Thursday to ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility to be lifted atop an Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: United Launch Alliance

A new weather satellite intended to roost over the Pacific Ocean and the western United States was mounted atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on Thursday at Cape Canaveral, getting a little closer to the launch scheduled for March 1.

The GOES-T spacecraft is the latest in NOAA’s fleet of in-orbit weather observatories that collect images and data to help forecasters predict the development and evolution of severe thunderstorms, hurricanes and wildfires of forest.

The satellite was encapsulated inside the payload fairing of the Atlas 5 rocket at Astrotech’s Payload Processing Facility in Titusville on Feb. 7, then transferred Thursday via Kennedy Space Center to the ULA vertical integration facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

A crane lifted the composite payload bay, containing the GOES-T satellite, above the Atlas 5 rocket onto its launch pad. The addition of the Atlas 5 white nose cone capped assembly, which is 196 feet (59.7 meters) tall.

Stacking of the Atlas 5 rocket began last month, when ground crews lifted the launcher’s bronze first stage onto its moving platform on Jan. 31, 10 days after Atlas 5’s previous launch. ULA then installed four Northrop Grumman-built solid rocket boosters around the Atlas 5 center stage, then raised the Centaur upper stage to the top of the first stage on February 7.

The rocket will fly in the Atlas 5 “541” configuration with a 5.4 meter (17.7 ft) diameter payload fairing, four strap thrusters and a single RL10 upper stage engine.

The two-hour March 1 launch window opens at 4:38 p.m. EST (21:38 GMT). ULA will transfer the Atlas 5 rocket with GOES-T to the launch pad on February 28.

The launch with NOAA’s GOES-T weather satellite will mark the 92nd flight of an Atlas 5 rocket since August 2002, and the eighth flight using the “541” version, following two previous GOES satellites, the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers from the NASA, and three spy satellite launches for the US government.

The GOES-T satellite, with a launch mass of more than 11,000 pounds (5 metric tons) fully fueled, was built by Lockheed Martin and arrived in Florida from its Colorado factory in November. Astrotech technicians tested the satellite to make sure it survived the cross-country trip, then loaded liquid propellants into the spacecraft for its main engine.

NOAA’s GOES-T satellite was encapsulated inside the payload fairing of the Atlas 5 rocket on February 7. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

After three burns with the Centaur’s RL10 engine, Atlas 5 will deploy the GOES-T satellite into an elongated orbit between 5,515 miles (8,876 kilometers) and 21,925 miles (35,286 kilometers). The orbit will be inclined at an angle of 9.4 degrees to the equator.

GOES-T’s own propulsion system will circularize the satellite’s orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) above the equator. At this altitude, in geosynchronous orbit, the motion of the satellite will match the rotation of the Earth, giving the spacecraft a constant view of a hemisphere.

NOAA’s geostationary operational environmental satellites take regularly updated images of cloud and storm systems, providing real-time views of tropical cyclones and severe weather. The first GOES satellite was launched in 1975, and NOAA maintains two operational GOES spacecraft – one covering the Pacific and western United States, and the other over the East Coast, Caribbean and The Atlantic Ocean.

NOAA’s polar-orbiting weather satellites collect data for medium- and long-range forecasts.

GOES-T will be renamed GOES-18 after launch, when it begins a nearly year-long series of verifications and tests before NOAA declares the satellite operational. The first weather images from GOES-18 could drop in May, and data from the new satellite could be provided to National Weather Service forecasters on an interim basis as early as July, said Pam Sullivan, director of NOAA’s GOES-R program.

The GOES-R series is NOAA’s next generation of geostationary weather satellites, and GOES-T is the third of four satellites in the group, following the launches of GOES-R and GOES-S — now called GOES-16 and GOES- 17 — in 2016 and 2018.

In early 2023, GOES-18 will transition to the GOES West position to take over from GOES-17, which NOAA will transition to a fleet backup role. GOES-16 will remain the active GOES East satellite.

“NOAA’s geostationary satellites provide the only continuous coverage of hazardous weather and environmental conditions in the Western Hemisphere, protecting the lives and property of the billion people who live and work here,” Sullivan said. “Observations from these satellites are even more critical now that the United States is experiencing a record number of billion-dollar disasters.”

The Atlas 5 rocket fully stacked with the GOES-T weather satellite. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Like the previous two GOES satellites launched in 2016 and 2018, the GOES-T satellite carries six instruments to monitor Earth and space weather.

The Advanced Baseline Imager, produced by L3Harris, is the main instrument. The ABI can see in 16 different visible and infrared wavelengths to determine cloud type, distinguish between clouds, fog and volcanic ash, and track moisture movement within clouds. Previous GOES satellite cameras could only see five channels.

Not only can the Advanced Baseline Imager resolve more detail, but the camera can capture images at a faster rate than previous GOES satellites – hemispherical views every 15 minutes and images of the continental United States every the five minutes.

The GOES-R series of satellites can return images of hotspots like hurricanes at a rate of once every 30 seconds, an improvement over the quick five-minute scans available before 2016.

GOES-T also hosts lightning detectors and sensors to monitor solar activity and space weather.

The new spacecraft scheduled for launch on March 1 features several changes from the first two GOES-R type satellites.

The ABI instrument on GOES-17 has degraded the function of some of its infrared channels, a problem engineers believe is most likely caused by foreign object debris blocking the flow of coolant in the thermal control system of the instrument. Malfunction of the cooling system means that the instrument’s detectors are unable to stay at the proper temperatures at times, resulting in intermittent loss of some infrared images.

On GOES-T and the GOES-U satellite slated for launch in 2024, engineers modified the design of the Advanced Baseline Imager’s radiator to eliminate filters where foreign object debris can be trapped.

The GOES-T satellite also has an improved magnetometer instrument provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA partners with NOAA for the development of weather satellites, overseeing contracts for the development of the spacecraft, instruments, and purchase of launch vehicles. NOAA operates and owns the satellites.

The GOES-R program costs $11.7 billion, including expenses for four satellites, instruments, launch services and operations, according to Sullivan.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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