NOAA continues weather satellite discussions with the Air Force

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WASHINGTON — As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration prepares to launch its second next-generation geostationary orbit weather satellite, it is continuing discussions with the U.S. Air Force about transferring one of its older spacecraft.

At a Feb. 1 briefing about the upcoming launch of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) S spacecraft, NOAA officials said it was still in the early stages of discussions with the Air Force about the potential transfer of an older GOES satellite that the agency will no longer need.

“We are working with the Air Force to figure out if any of our older assets can help meet their observational needs or requirements,” said Ajay Mehta, acting deputy assistant administrator for systems at NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service.

The agencies recently completed an annex to an umbrella agreement regarding engineering studies “to look at moving one of our residual GOES assets to support the Air Force’s and DOD’s tactical weather needs,” Mehta said. Those studies are just getting underway, and if they conclude such a transfer is feasible, the agencies will develop another annex to their agreement “to actually move whatever satellite we decide meets their needs.”

Mehta didn’t give a timetable for those studies or a final decision on a transfer of a satellite. However, the Air Force has expressed interest for some time in taking over a GOES satellite and moving it to the Indian Ocean region to fill a projected gap in weather data.

At the annual conference of the American Meteorological Society in Seattle in January 2017, Ralph Stoffler, director of weather for the U.S. Air Force, said the service was in discussions with NOAA about taking over GOES-14 in particular, a spare satellite. NOAA officials at the time said discussions with the Air Force were still in the preliminary stages and the agencies had reached no decision on a particular satellite to transfer to the Air Force.

Several options may be available. NOAA powered down the GOES-13 satellite Jan. 8 after GOES-16, launched in November 2016, replaced it as the operational weather satellite at NOAA’s eastern slot at 75 degrees west, known as GOES-East. The GOES-S satellite, to be renamed GOES-17 after launch, will replace the GOES-15 satellite at the GOES-West orbital location of 135 degrees west later this year.

GOES-14 currently serves as the operational spare, parked at 105 degrees west. GOES-15 may be moved there as well once GOES-17 replaces it, said Tim Walsh, acting director of NOAA’s GOES-R program. “It’s a nice location roughly 30 degrees from either operational location, so if we were to need a satellite right away, we could wake it up, bring it out of storage, and start imaging right away” while it’s moved to the desired orbital slot, he said.

GOES-13, he said, is currently drifting to another orbital slot at 60 degrees west, “which is a spot that we can store it for a period of time.”

GOES-S will be the second satellite in the GOES-R series of next-generation weather satellites, following GOES-16, which was known as GOES-R prior to its launch. The advanced sensors on the spacecraft provide much better data to support weather forecasting.

“As we’ve already seen with GOES-16, the GOES-R series is a quantum leap above any of its predecessors,” said Mehta. “GOES-16, even beyond the spectacular imagery, is already proving to be a game-changer, with much more refined, higher-quality data for faster, more accurate weather forecasts and warnings.”

GOES-S will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 on March 1 at 5:02 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral. Walsh said it would take about six months to check out the satellite and its instruments at a temporary orbital location before it’s ready to move to the GOES-West orbital position.

Walsh estimated the overall cost of the GOES-R program, which includes four Lockheed Martin-built satellites, a new ground system and operations of the satellite fleet through 2036, at approximately $10 billion.