The most advanced weather satellite ever built has rocketed into space, part of an $11 billion effort to revolutionise forecasting and save lives.
The new Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-R) spacecraft is designed to provide more timely and accurate weather forecasts and warnings of thunderstorms, tornadoes, fog, flash floods and other severe weather around North America.
The launch drew a crowd of about 50 TV meteorologists from around the United States 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,” the NBC’s weather and feature anchor Al Roker said.
“If we can give people another 10, 15, 20 minutes [in the case of tornadoes], we’re talking about lives being saved.”
The improved technology and instrumentation will also improve capabilities for forecasting the hazards of space weather.
“Really a quantum leap above any satellite NOAA has ever flown,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) director of satellites Stephen Volz said.
“For the American public, that will mean faster, more accurate weather forecasts and warnings.
“That also will mean more lives saved and better environmental intelligence for government officials responsible for hurricane and other evacuations.”
Airline passengers also stand to benefit, as do rocket launch teams, as improved forecasting assists pilots in avoiding bad weather and helps rocket scientists know when to call off a launch.
Hurricane Matthew had delayed the satellite’s launch by a couple weeks after it bore down on Florida in early October.
GOES-R first in a series of four high-tech satellites
NOAA teamed up with NASA for the mission, with the latter declaring success three-and-a-half hours after lift-off, following separation from the upper stage.
The first in a series of four high-tech satellites, GOES-R hitched a ride on an unmanned Atlas V rocket, which had been delayed an hour by rocket and other problems.
The satellite – valued by NOAA at $1 billion – is aiming for a 35,888-kilometre-high equatorial orbit, where it will join three ageing spacecraft with 40-year-old technology, and become known as GOES-16.
After months of testing, this satellite will take over for one of the older ones, with the second satellite in the series to follow in 2018.
The series is expected to stretch to 2036.
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, NOAA program director Greg Mandt said.
— NASA (@NASA) November 20, 2016
Forecasters will get pictures “like they’ve never seen before”, Mr Mandt promised.
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 with specific storm regions expected to update every 30 seconds.
A first-of-its-kind lightning mapper, meanwhile, will take 500 snapshots a second.
The $11-billion next-generation GOES program 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.