Teams Watch Weather, As 2024’s First Falcon Heavy Prepares to Launch GOES-U Tomorrow

Tomorrow’s launch will mark the tenth outing of the Falcon Heavy, which has delivered a range of commercial, government and scientific payloads aloft since its maiden voyage in February 2018. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Weather may prove to be the watchword in the next couple of days, as SpaceX readies for the tenth voyage of its Falcon Heavy booster from historic Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) carrying the 11,000-pound (5,000-kilogram) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-U) for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Current plans call for the triple-barreled rocket—with a brand-new center core, set to be expended on this mission, and a pair of side-boosters which will return to synchronized touchdowns on solid ground for refurbishment and reuse—to launch during a two-hour “launch window” opening at 5:16 p.m. EDT Tuesday.

Tomorrow’s launch will be the first Falcon Heavy mission of 2024 and its first outing in over six months, since last December’s USSF-52 for the U.S. Space Force. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

But Mother Nature may have other ideas, with only a 30-percent likelihood of acceptable weather predicted for both Tuesday’s opening launch attempt and a backup opportunity on Wednesday, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base. Potential watch-factors include violations of the Cumulus Cloud Rule, the Anvil Clouds Rule and the Surface Electric Fields Rule, driven by the tropical disturbance, Invest AL92.

“As Invest AL92 moves onshore near the Georgia coast, deep tropical moisture will remain over the Florida peninsula,” the 45th noted. “The surface Atlantic ridge axis will begin to slide southwards over the next several days, eventually making its way just south of the Spaceport.

Impressive view of the Falcon Heavy hardware being readied for last December’s USSF-52 mission. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

“This will cause prevailing low-level winds to shift to an offshore direction before the afternoon sea breeze develops,” it was added. “The above average levels of moisture, combined with the southwesterly flow and sufficient instability, will increase shower and storm chances each afternoon.”

For Tuesday and Wednesday, that is expected to yield showers and storms shortly before GOES-U’s early evening launch window opens. “Due to the offshore flow being relatively light, the sea breeze front will likely be able to migrate inland as the afternoon progresses,” continued the 45th, but cautioned that “with the westerly steering and upper-level flow, the storms and their associated anvil clouds will slowly migrate eastwards back towards the coast, leading to several Lightning Launch Commit Criteria concerns”.

GOES-U is the fourth and final member of the next-generation GOES-R fleet. Photo Credit: NASA

GOES-U is the fourth and final member of the next-generation GOES-R network of satellites, operated by NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) to conduct weather forecasting, storm tracking and meteorological research from geostationary altitude. It is customary for each GOES to be alphabetically designated prior to launch, then renamed with a number upon entering service; as such, GOES-U will become “GOES-19” when it commences operations.

Contracts to fabricate instruments for the GOES-R network were awarded way back in 2006 and Lockheed Martin was selected by NASA in December 2008 to build and integrate an initial pair of satellites, each carrying the option of one additional spacecraft, at a total cost (including exercised options) of $1.09 billion. That pair of satellites—GOES-R and GOES-S—were launched atop United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V boosters in November 2016 and March 2018.

GOES-U was delivered from Lockheed Martin’s facility in Littleton, Colo., to Florida back in January. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

The “additional” option was activated in May 2013 to build GOES-T—launched via a ULA Atlas V in March 2022—and GOES-U. In September 2021, NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) selected SpaceX to launch GOES-U, with a targeted launch date of April 2024. It will be the first GOES satellite ever launched by SpaceX. 

Based upon Lockheed Martin’s A2100A “bus”, GOES-U weighs about 11,000 pounds (5,000 kilograms) and its unfurled solar arrays will afford it around four kilowatts of electrical power. Aboard the spacecraft, in pride of place, sits L3Harris Technologies’ Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) to acquire terrestrial imagery across 16 spectral bands, including two visible, four near-infrared and ten infrared channels. 

Artist’s concept of a GOES-R-series satellite in geostationary orbit. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

This will enable observations of cloud formation, atmospheric motions, convections, land-surface temperature mapping, ocean dynamics and aerosols and air quality. The ABI’s sensitivity represents a twofold enhancement over earlier GOES incarnations.

Alongside the ABI, the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) will observe lightning emissions at near-infrared wavelengths, helping to alert forecasters to severe weather, developing storms and tornadoes. First utilized aboard GOES-R, this instrument can detect lightning by day and night, with a detection rate of 70-90 percent of all strikes within its viewing area. 

GOES-U is closed out inside the Falcon Heavy’s payload fairing halves earlier this month. Photo Credit: NASA

A group of solar and space environment sensors also reside aboard the GOES-U bus. The Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) will examine solar irradiance upon Earth’s atmosphere, whilst the Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI) will produce full-disk images of the Sun at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

Rounding out the GOES-U payload are the Magnetometer (MAG) and Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS). The former will furnish generalized data on geomagnetic activity as part of ongoing efforts to predict solar storms and facilitate large-scale space environment modeling, whilst the latter comprises four sensors to monitor proton, electron and heavy ion fluxes in the magnetosphere.

Encapsulated inside its Falcon Heavy fairing, GOES-U completes the move from Astrotech Space Operations to SpaceX’s integration hangar at Pad 39A overnight on 14/15 June. Photo Credit: NASA

The seventh and last payload aboard GOES-U is the Naval Research Laboratory’s Compact Coronagraph (CCOR)-1, which will examine the Sun’s outer corona to investigate large-scale plasma events responsible for geomagnetic solar storms. All told, the giant satellite is approximately the size of a small school bus.

Its construction phase was followed by lengthy tests, including acoustic trials and solar array deployment demonstrations. In March 2023, GOES-U was subjected to extremely high sound pressures equivalent to 138.4 decibels from high-intensity horns to simulate the rigors of launch. And in May of last year, its solar arrays were each deployed to their full dimensions of 13 feet (4.5 meters) long and 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) wide.

The Falcon Heavy stack is powered off the pad by 27 Merlin 1D+ engines. Photo Credit: SpaceX

GOES-U was delivered from Lockheed Martin’s facility in Littleton, Colo., via Buckley Space Force Base in Aurora, Colo., to Florida, aboard a C-5M Super Galaxy airlifter, arriving on the Space Coast last 23 January. It was then transported to Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville for final testing, fueling and encapsulation inside the Falcon Heavy payload shroud for its impending launch.

But the mission met with several weeks of additional delay, due to issues pertaining to the Falcon Heavy, which is making its tenth outing since February 2018 and its first so far in 2024. Two more Heavies are targeting launches later this fall, one in October carrying NASA’s Jupiter-bound Europa Clipper, the second no sooner than November with Astrobotic, Inc.’s Griffin-1 lunar lander and NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER).

Tomorrow’s launch of GOES-U will be the tenth flight of the triple-barreled Falcon Heavy since February 2018. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Flying GOES-U uphill will be an all-new Falcon Heavy, with the B1087 center core set to be expended on this mission and the B1072 and B1086 side-boosters aiming for synchronized touchdowns on solid ground at Landing Zones (LZ)-1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Those side-boosters are expected to be reused for the Griffin-1/VIPER mission later this year.

But last February, the launch was delayed from April until at least May, following a liquid oxygen leak detected in the B1087 center core during routine testing. A few weeks later, as testing continued, launch was shifted back to No Earlier Than (NET) 25 June.

GOES-U completes its journey to the SpaceX hangar at Pad 39A in the early morning of 15 June. Photo Credit: NASA

In the meantime, more than 5,000 pounds (2,270 kilograms) of fuel and oxidizer was loaded aboard GOES-U and on 10 June the 20-foot-tall (6.6-meter) satellite was mounted atop its Falcon Heavy payload adapter and attachment fitting and transferred out to SpaceX’s integration hangar at Pad 39A on the 14th. Last Thursday, NASA, NOAA, SpaceX and GOES-U mission managers gathered for the customary Flight Readiness Review (FRR), which concluded with approval to proceed with integration of the payload stack atop the Falcon Heavy, ahead of rollout to the pad surface.

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