United Launch Alliance (ULA) is ramping up for their third launch of 2018 this week, preparing their workhorse Atlas V rocket to deliver the next game-changing GOES meteorological satellite to orbit from launch complex 41 at Cape Canaveral AFS, FL on Thursday afternoon, March 1.
Liftoff of NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite—initially known as “GOES-S”, is scheduled to occur at 5:02pm EST, at the opening of a two-hour window. The satellite will track southeast over the Atlantic atop a rarely-used 197-foot-tall Atlas V 541 rocket, with a 17-foot-wide (5-meter) Short Payload Fairing (SPF), four strap-on solid-fueled boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage, headed for a geostationary orbit at an altitude of about 22,300 miles (35,900 km) over the Pacific Ocean.
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Operated by the United States’ National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), the multi-spacecraft GOES network is responsible for weather forecasting, storm tracking and meteorological research from geostationary orbit. The first member of the family, GOES-1, was launched in October 1975 and positioned over the Indian Ocean, returning its first image only nine days later. Over the next four decades, three generations of GOES spacecraft furnished day-and-night cloud observations and contributed significantly to the evolving science of global weather prediction and forecasting. It became customary for each satellite to be identified via a letter of the alphabet, before launch, and renamed with a number after entering service. Consequently, GOES-S will be numerically redesignated “GOES-17” when it begins operations.
GOES-S marks the second member of the fourth generation of the fleet, following on from the launch of GOES-16 in November 2016. Built by Lockheed Martin, GOES-S will provide for advanced imaging in support of better weather forecasts, as well as real-time lightning mapping and enhanced solar monitoring. The three-axis-stabilized spacecraft weighs approximately 6,170 pounds (2,800 kg) and represents a quantum leap in capability above its predecessors, boasting three times more spectral information, four times higher spatial resolution, five times faster coverage, and significantly enhanced functionality in providing advance warnings of storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and solar-induced events, ranging from geomagnetic storms to Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs).
With GOES-16 also designated “GOES-East”, positioned at 75.2 degrees East longitude and responsible for monitoring the United States’ eastern seaboard and the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean, the new GOES-S will take up the “GOES-West” spot at 137 degrees West longitude. Renamed “GOES-17” when it enters operational service, the new satellite will cover the western United States, together with Alaska and Hawaii, collecting imagery every 30 seconds and providing detailed atmospheric measurements to monitor weather patterns and severe storms. It will also track lightning, wildfires, dense fog and other hazards which frequently impact the western seaboard.
Better, faster data means more reliable forecasts, and gives appropriate authorities earlier warning to understand where a problem is, such as a wildfire just starting and rapidly intensifying, which could lead to saving lives. Devastating wildfires consume the western U.S. each year, GOES-S will save lives by knowing where wildfire hotspots are occurring earlier than ever before.
“We’ll soon see the value of having two sophisticated geostationary satellites in operation, not only in the amount of lives saved through more accurate forecasts, but in cost savings throughout the economy,” said Stephen Volz, Ph.D., director, NOAA Satellite and Information Service. “With GOES-S and GOES-16, we are able to cover about half the planet with the most sophisticated weather forecast technology ever flown in space.”
In 2017, several catastrophic wildfires in California burned more than one million acres of land across the state, killing several people and leaving thousands homeless having lost nearly everything.
“Thanks to high-resolution imagery from GOES-16, including red-green-blue thermal infrared imagery used to detect fire hot spots, forecasters at the National Weather Service were able to locate fires more quickly, and coordinate warnings with local emergency managers that helped save lives,” says NOAA. “In some cases, satellite imagery helped detect fires before 911 calls began to come in. GOES-S will provide a “second set of eyes” over the western U.S., and provide new wildfire monitoring capabilities where it is currently lacking, especially in Alaska.”
GOES-S carries three types of instruments. Its “Earth-facing” suite consists of the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) for visible and infrared observations of our planet’s weather and climate, enabling storms to be tracked in their early stages and the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) for continuous, day-and-night measurements of intra-cloud lightning associated with severe storms. It is hoped that their combined data will improve warning times ahead of tornadoes, as well as aiding the development of climatological models, thunderstorm warnings, and improving aviation weather services.
Its “Sun-facing” instruments are the Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI) and the Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) for extreme-ultraviolet and X-ray analyses of our parent star’s active regions, including solar flares and filaments, which precipitate the emergence of CMEs. Since these dramatic events can have dire implications upon Earth’s communications and navigational capabilities—as well as orbiting satellites and crews aboard the International Space Station (ISS)—early warnings are paramount.
Finally, the third set of instruments are “Space-facing” and comprise the Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS) and the Magnetometer (MAG) to observe proton, electron, and heavy-ion fluxes at geostationary altitude. In addition to assessing radiation hazards for humans and satellites at this altitude, these instruments will improve solar energetic particle forecasts and provide a better understanding of the dynamic conditions in Earth’s outer magnetosphere.
Last December, the satellite was delivered from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), aboard an Air Force C-5M Super Galaxy heavylift transport aircraft, for final pre-launch processing. In January, GOES-S underwent fueling in the Astrotech Space Operations clean room in Titusville, Fla., and the Common Core Booster (CCB) of its Atlas V rocket arrived at Cape Canaveral AFS on 22 January, via ULA’s Mariner transport ship. The 106.6-foot-long (32.5-meter) CCB was transferred to the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center, close to the SLC-41 launch site. Two days later, on the 24th, the rocket’s Centaur upper stage arrived and entered directly into processing at the Delta Operations Center. By 31 January, the CCB had been raised at the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at SLC-41, setting the groundwork for the installation of the four side-mounted solid-fueled rocket boosters.
By the second week of February, GOES-S had completed fueling and was encapsulated within its 17-foot-wide (5-meter) Short Payload Fairing (SPF). On the 17th, ULA CEO Tory Bruno tweeted that it had been integrated atop the Atlas V, raising the height of the stack to an estimated 197 feet (60 meters).
“GOES-S is now resting upon the shoulders of Mighty Atlas,” Mr. Bruno noted. Over the next few days, integrated systems tests were performed on the spacecraft and launch vehicle, culminating in a successful Flight Readiness Review (FRR) on the 23rd.
The rare Atlas 541 is the second-most-powerful variant of the Atlas V rocket family. It previously flew five times between November 2011’s launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and Curiosity rover and last September’s NROL-42. Upcoming uses of the 541 include NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, currently targeted to launch in July 2020.
The launch weather forecast from the U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing currently calls for 80% odds of favorable conditions expected for liftoff, with the primary concerns being Cumulous Clouds and strengthening ground winds, as well as a low chance of a proton flux (solar weather).
At liftoff, the Atlas V’s Russian-built RD-180 engine will roar to life with 860,000 pounds (390,000 kg) of propulsive yield, along with ignition of its four side-mounted booster, powering the 1.2-million-pound (540,300 kg) rocket uphill with a combined thrust in excess of 2.3 million pounds (1.07 million kg). Passing Mach 1 at 35 seconds into the flight, the vehicle will encounter a period of maximum aerodynamic turbulence (known as “Max Q”) on its airframe, while the four boosters, each measuring 55.7 feet (17 meters) long, burn for about 110 seconds, before separating in pairs, with each separation event timed 1.5 seconds apart.
With the boosters gone, the Atlas V will continue uphill under the RD-180. At 3.5 minutes into the flight, the SPF will jettison, exposing GOES-S and the attached Centaur upper stage to space for the first time. Finally, the RD-180 will shut down at 4.5 minutes before the CCB is discarded. The Centaur will then execute no fewer than three critical “burns” from its restartable RL10C-1 engine, to put GOES-S where it needs to be.
Tory Bruno outlined in brief the purpose of these intricate burns recently. The first firing, he explained, will deliver the satellite “to an elliptical Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) parking orbit”, after which the first period of coasting will bring it into the correct longitudinal position. The second burn, “setting us on an elliptical (Hohmann) transfer orbit”, will allow GOES-S to coast out to its new apogee. “After about three hours, we’ll intersect with the apogee of our destination Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO),” he concluded. “Then burn again to settle in.”
The final burn will lower the launch inclination to near-equatorial. “Because of Atlas’ might & accuracy & the great work of the GOES designers,” Mr. Bruno tweeted, “we expect to provide a higher perigee and lower inclination than requested, giving the bird [up to] four extra years of life.”
NOAA manages the GOES-R Series Program through an integrated NOAA-NASA office, with personnel from both agencies. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center oversees the acquisition of the GOES-R spacecraft and instruments. Lockheed Martin is responsible for the design, creation, and testing the GOES-R Series satellites and for spacecraft launch processing. Harris Corp. provides the main instrument payload, the Advanced Baseline Imager, along with the ground system, which includes the antenna system for data reception.
– Article written by Ben Evans and Mike Killian
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