On March 6th, 2017, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s latest weather satellite, called GOES-16, detected wildfires in northern Texas from space — before firefighters in the area even received 911 calls. NOAA quickly alerted local officials, who began evacuating people.
“We saved lives,” says Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service at NOAA, “well before we even went operational.” In fact, NOAA had just gotten access to the first GOES-16 imagery when it spotted the wildfires, while the satellite was still in its testing phase. Four days in, and GOES-16 was already showing its perhaps most important potential.
Now, NOAA is getting ready to launch a second satellite that will complement the work of GOES-16, which launched in 2016. Called GOES-S, the new satellite is taking off tomorrow on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will sit in the same orbit as GOES-16 — 22,300 miles above Earth — but it will scan a different part of the world. While GOES-16 focuses on the East Coast, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Africa, GOES-S will cover the western US, Alaska, Hawaii, and the Pacific Ocean all the way to New Zealand. Together, the two satellites will observe most of the Western Hemisphere, providing faster and more detailed data on everything from storms to lightning, wildfires, and fog.
The two satellites — part of the so-called GOES-R series — are a much needed upgrade to NOAA’s old weather satellites, which sport 1990s hardware. “Very few people still have a tube television in their house; they have a nice flat screen TV,” says Jordan Gerth, a research meteorologist at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin. “So the old satellite was built on that tube television technology, and it really doesn’t provide a crisp image that a nice LCD or plasma screen TV provides today.”
The satellites can scan our planet five times faster and at four times the image resolution as previous probes. “The most exciting thing about it is the ability to rapidly take images,” Gerth tells The Verge. The spacecraft can see features in the atmosphere change every 30 seconds, while previously, the fastest we could do was every five or 15 minutes, says Gerth. That allows forecasters to really follow the development of a storm, like a hurricane, in almost real time.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August 2017, for instance, forecasters used timely and high-resolution data from GOES-16 to really understand the dynamics of the hurricane eye wall and the storm’s rapid intensification. That kind of information allowed for more accurate forecasts, which were key for evacuating people. “The first responders went out and rescued over 200 people who were stranded on those islands along the coast of Texas,” Uccellini said during a press briefing.
The sister satellites can also scan the Earth across more spectral bands than previous probes — 16 total, from visible to infrared and near infrared bands. That allows meteorologists to differentiate between different types of clouds, as well as monitor cloud top temperatures, which is needed to predict how much rain will fall and whether there’s a risk of flash flooding. The satellites also track lightning as well as space weather that can interfere with GPS systems and power grids here on Earth.
After the GOES-S satellite is launched into space, it will take 17 days to reach orbit, and at that point, it will be renamed GOES-17. It will undergo six months of testing and will become operational in late 2018, according to Tim Walsh, acting GOES-R system program director. NOAA plans to launch two more satellites in the series: GOES-T and GOES-U, which are planned to take off in 2020 and 2024, respectively, and will function as spare in space. That will extend the life of the GOES-R series through 2036, with a budget of $10.8 billion. “The GOES-R series is really a quantum leap above any of its NOAA predecessors,” Steve Volz, director for satellite and information services at NOAA, said during a press briefing. “This means quite frankly more lives are saved.”
The GOES-S is slated to take off on Thursday, March 1st at 5:02PM ET from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. ULA has a two-hour window for launch. Live coverage will begin at 4:30PM ET, so check back then to see this next-generation weather satellite ride to space.