Revolutionary GOES-R Weather Satellite Ready for Launch, Apogee Motor No Concern-UPDATE

Revolutionary GOES-R Weather Satellite Ready for Launch, Apogee Motor No Concern-UPDATE

UPDATE, October 5, 2016:  Updated with comments from NOAA about the potential impact of Hurricane Matthew on the GOES-R satellite, which is in Florida where hurricane warnings are in effect.

ORIGINAL STORY, October 4, 2016: The first of NOAA’s new geostationary weather satellite series, GOES-R, is ready for launch on November 4 the agency announced today.  GOES-R is used as shorthand for what is actually a set of four virtually identical satellites to be launched over the next several years.  They will receive number designations once in orbit; this will be GOES-16. The satellite incorporates an apogee kick motor to propel it from a transfer orbit to its final destination above the equator.  Two such motors failed recently, but NOAA is not concerned.  It has a backup system should the motor not perform as planned.  Of more immediate concern may be the safety of the satellite from Hurricane Matthew, which is bearing down on Florida where GOES-R is awaiting launch.

Steve Volz, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellites and Information Services (NESDIS) lauded the satellite’s capabilities at a press conference today, saying they are a “quantum leap” beyond the GOES satellites currently on orbit — GOES-13, -14 and -15.   He likened it to the difference between black and white television of yesteryear and ultra high definition television of today.

NOAA maintains two operational geostationary weather satellites plus a spare in addition to its polar-orbiting fleet.  One geostationary satellite covers the eastern part of the United States and surrounding waters (GOES-East) while another covers the western region (GOES-West).  The spare is situated between them, ready to take over if one fails.  Currently GOES-13 is GOES-East and GOES-15 is GOES-West.  GOES-14 is the spare.

GOES-R will be launched on November 4 at 5:40 pm ET from Cape Canaveral, FL on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  The launch window is two hours.  If the apogee kick motor operates as expected it will take two weeks for the satellite to raise its orbit to its geostationary destination, followed by a 12-month checkout period.   NOAA will determine after checkout whether it will be placed in the East or West position. The satellite has sufficient fuel to last for 20 years, but nominally will be used operationally for 10 years and as a spare for 5 years.

The apogee kick motor, used to circularize the satellite’s orbit at the proper altitude, is similar to those used on the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System-5 (MUOS-5) satellite, the Intelsat 33e communications satellite, and the Air Force’s Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Satellite-3 (SBIRS GEO-3).  One of these motors failed on MUOS-5, which was launched on June 24.  The malfunction stranded the satellite in a useless orbit.   Another motor failed on Intelsat 33e, launched on August 24, but that satellite is capable of using another on-board propulsion system (for stationkeeping) to raise the orbit; it is expected to reach its correct position in December.  Last month, the Air Force decided to delay the launch of SBIRS GEO-3 to ensure its apogee motor is functional.

NOAA’s GOES-R program manager Greg Mandt said that NOAA is not concerned about the GOES-R apogee motor.  First, he credited NASA, which serves as NOAA’s procurement agent for satellites, with having the foresight to ensure there are no single point failures.  If the apogee motor fails, the satellite can use its stationkeeping engines to reach the correct orbit.  Instead of two weeks, it would take four weeks to raise the orbit.  Expending the fuel required to do that would shorten the satellite’s lifetime from 20 years to 18 years, still more than enough to cover its mission.  He added that NASA and NOAA also do not see the same problems with this motor that occurred with the others.

GOES-R has six instruments.  Mandt explained that the spacecraft’s primary instrument, the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), will have three times the spectral resolution of its predecessors and will be able to scan from the North to South poles 5 times faster.  It will be able to zoom in on a specific storm and look at it every 30 seconds — a temporal resolution that will “revolutionize forecasting.”  

Japan’s Himawari 8, already in orbit, has an ABI, enabling NOAA to test out new algorithms before GOES-R is launched, he added.

GOES-R also has a lightning mapper that will allow tracking cloud-to-cloud lightning in addition to cloud-to-ground, and lightning over oceans.  Another instrument will be able to spot not only when fog is forming, but when it is decaying, which will improve airport operations, for example. Space weather instruments also are aboard to study activity on the Sun that can affect the Earth.

Louis Uccellini, Director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, enthused that the GOES-R will provide “new and improved forecasts and warnings from the Sun to the sea to help save lives and property.”

Representing the private weather industry, Mary Glackin, Senior Vice President for Public-Private Partnerships at the Weather Company, commended the government’s support for systems like GOES-R and open data policies that allow data to be “capitalized to the fullest.”  She said the private weather industry is ready to use the GOES-R data thanks to efforts by NOAA over many years. 

With Hurricane Matthew bearing down on Haiti and possibly on course towards the East Coast of the United States, questions arose as to whether more lives and property will be saved when GOES-R’s improved instruments are operating.  Uccelliini stressed that the effort to save lives is based on a partnership with people on the ground who need to make decisions to evacuate and effectively convey that urgency.  There is a “human factor embedded in all of that,” he emphasized.

Ironically, this new weather satellite is now at risk because of the weather.  As of October 5, Hurricane Matthew is on track to hit Florida’s Space Coast with some fury.  The GOES-R spacecraft is at Lockheed Martin’s Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville, near Cape Canaveral and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  NOAA’s John Leslie said in an emailed statement that “the team preparing NOAA’s GOES-R spacecraft for launch has taken appropriate safety measures to secure the satellite at its present location….GOES-R is contained in a building that can withstand strong (category 4) hurricane conditions. After the effects of Hurricane Matthew subside, NOAA and NASA will carefully assess the spacecraft and provide an update on its status.”

Assuming GOES-R safely reaches orbit, it and the other three in the series (GOES-S, -T, and -U) will provide continuous observations through 2036.  The program, including a completely new ground system, is being built at a cost $10.9 billion. 

The program has not been trouble free as evidenced by multiple reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and an Independent Review Team (IRT) led by retired industry executive Tom Young that was highly critical of the management of both GOES-R and its polar-orbiting counterpart the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).   As recently as this August, Senator John Thune, Chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which oversees NOAA, sent a letter to NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan asking 11 detailed questions about both GOES and JPSS, both of which have experienced schedule delays and cost overruns.  A major congressional concern has been whether gaps in satellite coverage might develop if older satellites stop functioning before new ones are launched.

That is not a concern in this case, at least, since there are three functioning GOES satellites already and only two are needed for an operational constellation.   GOES-R will become the fourth satellite, but the first with these improved capabilities.

Lockheed Martin builds the satellites and some of the instruments.  Harris Corporation built the ABI as well as the GOES-R ground segment.

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