SEATTLE — Construction has begun on the main sensor for the next generation of U.S. geostationary weather satellites, and the program cleared an early design review the week of Jan. 17, a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) official said Jan. 25.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R program is on track for a first launch in October 2015, program manager Greg Mandt said at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society here.

The United States has operated geostationary satellites for weather prediction and storm tracking for 35 years, and the GOES-R system will produce much more timely and precise data to improve weather and climate models. NASA is procuring the system on behalf of NOAA.

Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems is building at least two and as many as four GOES-R spacecraft under a contract awarded in 2008. The government-industry team completed the spacecraft preliminary design review at Lockheed Martin’s Newtown, Pa., facilities, and a critical design review will be held in about a year, Mandt said.

The GOES-R satellites will carry six environmental and climate monitoring instruments, none as important as the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), which will collect more than 80 percent of the mission data. The sensor will produce imagery of clouds, storms and atmospheric particles in 16 different wavelengths.

Developed by ITT Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y., the ABI is significantly more capable and complex than imagers flown on previous U.S. weather satellites, and as such program officials decided to develop and test a full-scale prototype of the instrument that is nearly identical to the first flight model.

ITT, NOAA and NASA in early January completed an 11-month test campaign of the ABI prototype, finding no major design flaws,  Bob Hookman, ITT’s ABI program manager, said in a Jan. 26 interview. The first flight model is now in production and on track for delivery in 2012, Hookman said.

ITT has scaled back from nearly 300 people working on the ABI last summer to about 200 people, and the company expects to move another 50 people off the program as it completes the transition to production. The company is under firm contract to build two of the instruments for NOAA and two similar instruments for Japan’s next generation of geostationary weather satellites. South Korea and Canada have also expressed interest in the ABI, and the instruments could eventually be produced at a rate of one per year, Hookman said.

Meanwhile, scientists at a number of weather organizations around the United States have been working for years to develop the algorithms and models needed to exploit the huge volume of data that will be collected by the ABI sensors, said Tim Schmit, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Center for Satellite Applications and Research.

Whereas the four U.S. weather satellites in geostationary orbit today collect data in five spectral bands, the ABI will produce imagery in 16 spectral bands. The spatial resolution of the imagery will be improved by four times, and the time needed to create a single image will be reduced by 80 percent.

These improvements will provide significantly more accurate and timely weather forecasts, plus many new capabilities, Schmit said in a Jan. 26 interview. For example, today’s satellites have a very limited capability to distinguish between water clouds and the ice clouds that airline pilots try to avoid, Schmit said. With products that use the ABI’s additional spectral bands, NOAA will be able to identify which cloud formations are safe to fly through, enabling aircraft to take more direct routes, saving time and fuel, he said.

The scientists developing ABI products gained valuable experience working with imagery collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer instruments on NASA’s Aqua and Terra spacecraft, which use many of the same spectral bands, Schmit said.  Designed for research, Aqua and Terra cannot be used operationally, Schmit said. Moreover, he said, they operate in polar, low Earth orbits and thus do not provide continuous coverage of the same regions as do geostationary orbiting spacecraft.

Just as the current-generation geostationary weather satellites are still finding new applications, GOES-R data are likely to keep modelers busy for years to come, Schmit said. NOAA is on track to have a certain set of baseline products ready when the first satellite is launched, including volcanic ash, cloud moisture and imagery, total precipitation, lightning detection and wildfire characterization. So-called Option 2 products such as aircraft icing and low-cloud and fog models may not be ready by then, he said.

“What we’re doing on day one is a subset of the continuity products that we’re already doing with the current [geostationary weather satellites] and some new products that the new spectral bands will allow,” Schmit said. “I think there will be a lot to do for a decade or more after first launch.”



NOAA’s Request Includes $1 Billion for Joint Polar Satellite System

GOES-R Ground Segment Passes First Milestone 

GOES-R Funding Reduced In 2011 Draft Budget Plan