An Atlas 541 (the second-heaviest configuration Atlas V in active use) blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Station today, ferrying the massive GOES-R weather satellite into its geosynchronous transfer orbit. This was the one hundred launch of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program, created by the USAF in the 1990s and ultimately producing the Atlas V (by General Dynamics, then Lockheed Martin) and the Delta IV (by Boeing). It is not likely to ever reach its 200th flight; both vehicles are due to be replaced by a newer rocket, the Vulcan, in a few years. But the program has enjoyed a remarkable success rate — 98 flawless flights, 2 ending in suboptimal orbits. That is an exceptionally rare success rate in rocketry.
The spacecraft, operated by NASA on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is the first of a fleet of four next-generation geosynchronous weather satellites; total cost of the program, including development and operation, is $11 billion. But it’s an enormously valuable investment, because these satellites will be equipped like no other weather satellites. They will be able to complete
Once it reaches its perch, GOES-R will become GOES-16. (They do not receive their numbers until they successfully arrive in orbit.) It will then spend a year sitting at 89.5 degrees west, undergoing testing for its commissioning phase. It will eventually be moved to the primary GOES perches, as either GOES-East or GOES-West. Those two positions are currently held by GOES-13 and GOES-15. GOES-14 is also still in orbit, currently biding its time as an on-orbit spare. Given the enormous amounts of money involved, and the absolutely critical nature of the data these spacecraft deliver, NASA and NOAA both want them up well in advance of them going into service, just in case.
GOES-R is much more advanced than its predecessors. It carries advanced space weather sensors, in recognition of the fact that space weather forecasting has become enormously important both to our sensitive power grid and the many spacecraft we depend upon, the first-ever lightning imager designed to operate from geostationary orbit, a camera that can complete a full-disk image in just five minutes (fast enough to create detailed animations useful in local weather forecasting), and much more. It’s so packed with revolutionary new instruments that scientists are excited just to find out what they can do with the gargantuan flood of data these spacecraft will produce. It’s going to be fun to see what they come up with!