Best weather satellite ever built rockets into space

A new NASA satellite will give scientists unprecedented power to predict the weather. Photo / AP
A new NASA satellite will give scientists unprecedented power to predict the weather. Photo / AP

The most advanced weather satellite ever built rocketed into space yesterday, part of an US$15 billion (NZ$21b) effort to revolutionise forecasting and save lives.

This new GOES-R spacecraft will track US weather as never before: hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, volcanic ash clouds, wildfires, lightning storms, even solar flares. Indeed, about 50 TV meteorologists from around the United States converged on the launch site along with 8000 space program workers and guests.

"What's so exciting is that we're going to be getting more data, more often, much more detailed, higher resolution," said Al Roker, one of America's most famous TV weather forecasters and personalities who attended the launch. In the case of tornadoes, "if we can give people another 10, 15, 20 minutes, we're talking about lives being saved."

Think superhero speed and accuracy for forecasting. Super high-definition TV, versus black-and-white.

"Really a quantum leap above any satellite NOAA has ever flown," said Stephen Volz, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's director of satellites.

"For the American public, that will mean faster, more accurate weather forecasts and warnings," Volz said. "That also will mean more lives saved and better environmental intelligence" for government officials responsible for hurricane and other evacuations.

While an increase in atmospheric data is off interest to all nations, at this stage the satellite will only be used to monitor and investigate the weather in North America.

Airline passengers also stand to benefit, as do rocket launch teams. Improved forecasting will help pilots avoid bad weather and help rocket scientists know when to call off a launch.

NASA declared success three and a half hours after lift-off, following separation from the upper stage.

The first in a series of four hi-tech satellites, GOES-R hitched a ride on an unmanned Atlas V rocket, delayed an hour by rocket and other problems. NOAA teamed up with NASA for the mission.

The satellite take off.
The satellite take off.

The satellite - valued by NOAA at $US1 billion - is aiming for a 35,800-kilometre-high equatorial orbit. There, it will join three ageing spacecraft with 40-year-old technology, and become known as GOES-16.

After months of testing, this newest satellite will take over for one of the older ones. The second satellite in the series will follow in 2018. All told, the series should stretch to 2036. GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. The first was launched in 1975.

GOES-R's premier imager - one of six science instruments - will offer three times as many channels as the existing system, four times the resolution and five times the scan speed, said NOAA program director Greg Mandt. A similar imager is also flying on a Japanese weather satellite.

Typically, it will churn out full images of the Western Hemisphere every 15 minutes and the continental United States every five minutes. Specific storm regions will be updated every 30 seconds.

Forecasters will get pictures "like they've never seen before," Mandt promised. A first-of-its-kind lightning mapper, meanwhile, will take 500 snapshots a second.

What's so exciting is that we're going to be getting more data, more often, much more detailed, higher resolution.
Al Roker, US TV weather forecaster

This next-generation GOES program - $15 billion in all - includes four satellites, an extensive land system of satellite dishes and other equipment, and new methods for crunching the massive, non-stop stream of expected data.

Hurricane Matthew, interestingly enough, delayed the launch by a couple weeks. As the hurricane bore down on Florida in early October, launch preps were put on hold. Matthew stayed far enough offshore to cause minimal damage to Cape Canaveral, despite some early forecasts that suggested a direct strike.

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