On March 6, 2017, the last meteorological satellite of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, called GOES-16, detected forest fires in North Texas from space, even before firefighters received calls to 911. NOAA alerted quickly to local officials, who began to evacuate people.
"We saved lives," says Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service at NOAA, "long before we started operating." In fact, NOAA had just had access to the first images of GOES-16 when it detected the forest fires, while the satellite was still in its testing phase. Four days later, and GOES-16 already showed its potential perhaps more important.
Now, NOAA is launching a second satellite that will complement the work of GOES-16, which was launched in 2016. Called GOES-S, the new satellite is taking off today on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will be located in the same orbit as GOES-16, 22,300 miles above Earth, but it will explore a different part of the world. While GOES-16 focuses on the east coast, the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean until it reaches Africa, GOES-S will cover the western United States. UU., Alaska, Hawaii and the Pacific Ocean to reach 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, forest fires and fog.
An animation shows the coverage of GOES-16 (also called GOES-East) in orange and GOES-17 (also called GOES-West) in blue. Video: NOAA
The two satellites, part of the so-called GOES-R series, are a much-needed upgrade for NOAA's old weather satellites, which have hardware from the 1990s. "Very few people still have a tube television in their home; good 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 with that tube television technology, and it really does not provide a sharp image that a good LCD or plasma screen television currently offers."
Satellites can scan our planet five times faster and four times the resolution of the image than previous probes. "The most exciting thing is the ability to quickly take pictures," Gerth tells The Verge. The spacecraft can see that the characteristics in the atmosphere change every 30 seconds, whereas before, the fastest we could do was every five or 15 minutes, says Gerth. That allows the forecasters to really follow the development of a storm, like a hurricane, almost in real time.
An impressive view of the Earth taken by the GOES-16 satellite. Photo: NOAA
When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in August of 2017, forecasters used timely and high-resolution information from the GOES-16 to really understand the hurricane eye wall dynamics and the rapid intensification of the storm. This type of information allowed more precise forecasts, which were key to evacuate people. "The first responders came out and rescued more than 200 people who were stranded on those islands along the Texas coast," Uccellini said during a press conference.
Sibling satellites can also explore the Earth through more spectral bands than previous probes: 16 in total, from visible bands to infrared and near infrared. This allows meteorologists to differentiate between different types of clouds, as well as to monitor the maximum temperatures of the clouds, which is necessary to predict the amount of rain that will fall and if there is a risk of sudden flooding. The satellites also track the rays and space weather that can interfere with GPS systems and electrical networks here on Earth.
GOES-16 takes off from Cape Canaveral, Florida in November 2016. Photo: NOAA
After the GOES-S satellite launches into space, it will take 17 days to reach orbit, and at that point, it will be called GOES-17. It will undergo six months of testing and will begin to operate by the end of 2018, according to Tim Walsh, program director of the GOES-R system. NOAA plans to launch two more satellites in the series: GOES-T and GOES-U, which are scheduled to take off in 2020 and 2024, respectively, and will function as a spare in space. That will extend the life of the GOES-R series until 2036, with a budget of $ 10.8 billion. "The GOES-R series is really a qualitative leap over any of its NOAA predecessors," said Steve Volz, director of satellite and information services at NOAA, during a press conference. "This frankly means that more lives are saved."
The GOES-S is scheduled to take off today at 5:02 PM ET from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. ULA has a two-hour window for the launch. Live coverage will begin at 4:30 p.m. ET, so check back to see the satellite trip of the next generation's climate to space.