At Cape Canaveral, a crane lifts the GOES-R satellite to join it with the Atlas V Centaur rocket that will take it up into orbit. Image Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky via Flickr
The future of weather forecasting weighs more than 6000 pounds and is patiently spending its final days on Earth overlooking the glistening Florida coast. NASA will soon launch the latest addition to its arsenal of tools designed to help meteorologists track and predict the future movements of our fluid atmosphere. The GOES-R weather satellite will provide scientists around the world with a trove of data to monitor the latest movements of storms both near and far.
1. GOES-R IS THE MOST ADVANCED WEATHER SATELLITE TO DATE.
Barring any last-minute issues, GOES-R is scheduled to begin its journey on November 19 just after sunset from Cape Canaveral. GOES-R should have already been in space by now, but like many space projects before it, the new satellite’s launch has suffered several minor delays in the months leading up to launch.
The original launch date was November 4, but in a fitting sendoff for the country’s most advanced weather satellite to date, Hurricane Matthew’s terrifying brush with Florida pushed the launch back by a couple of weeks to November 16 due to safety checks. The launch was further delayed by a couple of days while crews worked out some issues with the booster rockets that will help GOES-R reach orbit.
2. IT WILL FOLLOW A GEOSYNCHRONOUS ORBIT.
The name “GOES” stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, a mouthful that alludes to the very orbit that makes these satellites so useful. Unlike many spacecraft that actively circle the Earth every hour or two, weather monitoring satellites like the GOES series are parked in a geosynchronous, or geostationary, orbit. Satellites that follow a geosynchronous orbit exactly match the speed at which the planet rotates, allowing the satellite to remain over one fixed point on the Earth’s surface. Scientists achieve this feat by sending satellites into orbit exactly 42,164 kilometers (26,199 miles) away from the center of the Earth—or about 36,000 kilometers (22,369 miles) above the surface at the equator—giving the satellite a consistent view of half the planet for its entire service life, which in this case is anticipated to be about 10 years.
3. GOES-R WILL BE IN GOOD COMPANY.
A map showing the locations and coverage area of the three GOES satellites in active service. Image credit: NOAA/NASA
We currently have three different GOES satellites that help us monitor the Western Hemisphere. The two satellites that are in active service are GOES-13 and GOES-15. The former satellite is commonly called GOES-East, while the latter is aptly known as GOES-West. Each satellite covers about half of the Western Hemisphere. GOES-East watches over most of North America, all of South America, and the Atlantic Ocean, while GOES-West primarily keeps tabs on the eastern Pacific Ocean and parts of western North America. GOES-14 serves as a backup satellite, filling in for the other two satellites if they encounter any issues.
4. IT'LL GIVE US A BETTER VIEW OF OUR SKIES THAN EVER BEFORE.
A low-pressure system in the western Atlantic Ocean as seen by GOES-East on November 10, 2016. Image credit: NASA/NOAA
The most important feature of GOES-R will be its Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), the device that will give us a more detailed view of the atmosphere much faster than its predecessors. The current generation of GOES satellites generate "full disk" images (meaning of the entire Earth face) every three hours and higher-resolution views every 15 minutes. In contrast, GOES-R and its successors will take full-disk images every 15 minutes and a higher-resolution image of the United States every five minutes. If there's an active storm, it'll take two images of it every 60 seconds. See it in action below.
The new satellite also has the ability to give us rapid scans of smaller areas—think on the level of a couple of states—to track events like tornado outbreaks or the eye of a hurricane. The satellite will be able to give us rapid updates for two small areas every 60 seconds or one small area every 30 seconds, which will be a tremendous help in tracking important changes in rapidly-developing weather systems.
5. IT CAN TRACK LIGHTNING AS IT HAPPENS.
GOES-R's primary capabilities. Image Credit: NOAA/NASA
GOES-R will also host a nifty device known as the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), making it the first satellite to track lightning flashes from geosynchronous orbit. The sensor will monitor the atmosphere for sudden flashes of light that indicate the presence of lightning, mapping this data to give us a near-real-time look at just about every thunderstorm within the satellite’s range of sight.
Among other uses, data collected by the GLM could help forecasters extend warning lead times ahead of intensifying severe thunderstorms, adding crucial minutes for people to act before dangerous wind, hail, or tornadoes strike their area. It’s also useful in helping us monitor rapid intensification of hurricanes, as increased lightning activity in the eyewall of a tropical cyclone often precedes strengthening.
6. IT HAS ADVANCED SOLAR MONITORING.
The satellite will also have several sensors dedicated to monitoring activity around the Sun, some of which can have serious implications here on Earth. The Extreme ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) will help us track solar flares that could disrupt communications and potentially damage satellites. Several of the sensors will also measure different types of radiation approaching the planet, which can also damage satellites and pose harm to astronauts and even passengers on airline routes that travel over the poles.
7. GOES-R WILL BE RENAMED AFTER LAUNCH.
The GOES-R satellite in the payload processing facility two months before launch. Image Credit: NOAA Satellites via Flickr
It’s customary for GOES satellites to be named sequentially by letter before launch and by number after launch. Once it reaches a successful orbit and begins operation, GOES-R will become GOES-16. NOAA hasn’t decided which current satellite the new one will replace, though GOES-East is the odds-on favorite for replacement as it’s passed the end of its expected 10-year lifespan.
8. GOES SATELLITES HAVE A SIZEABLE FAMILY TREE.
GOES-R represents the fifth generation of GOES satellites, a series that began with the launch of GOES-1 back in 1975. Each new group of satellites improved by leaps and bounds over the previous generation. The first three satellites had limited abilities and provided limited data compared to what we can gather today; they took little more than a picture of the Earth. Each generation after that grew more advanced with improved image resolution, improved speed, more data points, and better data quality.
9. GOES-R IS THE FIRST OF THREE IN ITS GENERATION.
The next two satellites in GOES-R’s class are scheduled to launch before the end of the decade, finally phasing out the fourth generation of satellites in use today. Barring any major issues with GOES-R, the next satellite, GOES-S, is tentatively scheduled to launch in the winter of 2018, and GOES-T will follow behind it in the fall of 2019. After that, we have to wait until the middle of the 2020s to enjoy the technological advances of the series of satellites that will replace the one launching this Saturday.