Atlas 5 GOES-S
An Atlas 5 541 lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, March 1, carrying the GOES-S geostationary weather satellite. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Updated 8:40 p.m. Eastern after spacecraft separation.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 successfully launched the second in a series of next-generation weather satellites March 1, completing a refresh of the major satellites used to monitor weather for the United States.

The Atlas 5 541 rocket lifted off at 5:02 p.m. Eastern from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, after a trouble-free countdown. The payload, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) S, separated from the Centaur upper stage about three and a half hours after liftoff, shortly after the completion of the stage’s third burn.

GOES-S is the second in a new generation of weather satellites built by Lockheed Martin for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The first, GOES-R, launched in November 2016 and was subsequently renamed GOES-16. It operates from the GOES-East orbital location at 75 degrees east in geostationary orbit.

GOES-S will be renamed GOES-17 and will be located at the GOES-West location at 135 degrees west later this year, replacing the GOES-15 satellite currently operating there. It will provide coverage for the western United States and across much of the Pacific, complementing GOES-16.

Atlas 5 GOES-S launch
The Atlas 5 carrying GOES-S ascends to orbit after lifting off from Cape Canaveral March 1. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

The launch of GOES-S is “completing NOAA’s new next-generation operational geostationary and polar-orbiting satellite fleet,” said Steve Volz, director for satellite and information services at NOAA, during a pre-launch press conference Feb. 27. Besides the two new GOES satellites, the first Joint Polar Satellite System satellite, named NOAA-20, launched in November. “It’s been a very busy 18 months or so for NOAA.”

GOES-S is essentially the same as GOES-R, other than a few minor modifications based on the flight experience from the first satellite, said Tim Gasparrini, GOES-R program manager at Lockheed Martin, in a March 1 interview. That includes tweaks to the thermal blankets to keep spacecraft avionics at the optimal temperature, and changes to the accommodation of the magnetometer instrument.

NOAA is also considering changes to how the spacecraft’s major instrument, the Advanced Baseline Imager instrument, operates. Paul Griffith, chief solutions engineer for instrument builder Harris Space and Intelligence Systems, said in a March 1 interview that the instrument currently takes a full disk image every 15 minutes. GOES-S will test the ability to take such images every 10 minutes in order to match imaging by weather satellites operated or planned by Japan, South Korea and Europe.

The key issue, he said, is to make sure other aspects of the GOES data system that process and distribute imagery can handle the change in imaging rates. “We know the payload can handle it, we know the ground system can handle it,” he said. “This will be the test of everything downstream.”

Other than those minor changes, work on GOES-S went smoother than GOES-R. “This one has gone substantially faster in the integration phase than the first one,” Gasparrini said. He added the other two satellites in the series, GOES-T and GOES-U, are under development for launch in 2020 and 2024, respectively.

The GOES-R series features advanced instruments that have provided dramatic improvements in the types and quality of data available. “As we’ve already seen from GOES-16, the GOES-R series really is a quantum leap above any of its NOAA predecessors,” said Volz.

That has included some unexpected applications. GOES-16, during its checkout last year, proved to be adept at spotting wildfires using a specific infrared band. The sensors can detect fires as small as half an acre in size, Gasparrini said.

“The folks that are looking at the data,” he said, “are actually seeing fires before even local fire people see them.”

Among those in attendance for the launch was Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. “I’m thrilled it’s a NOAA satellite, because of all the good things that it can do,” he said in an interview here shortly before the launch.

Ross also attended the Falcon Heavy launch here last month. “They’re doing different functions, and the purposes of the launches are a little different,” he said, comparing the Falcon Heavy and Atlas 5 launches. “But it shows the diversity of the kinds of efforts that the American space program can put forward.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...