GOES-16 Earth image
A full-disk image of the Earth taken by the GOES-16 spacecraft Jan. 15. Credit: NOAA/NASA/Harris Corp.

SEATTLE — The first in a new generation of geostationary orbit weather satellites is performing well in its initial post-launch tests, although months of work lie ahead before the satellite is declared operational.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released the first images Jan. 23 from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) 16 spacecraft, known as GOES-R when it launched on an Atlas 5 from Cape Canaveral Nov. 19. The images came from the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), one of the key instruments on the spacecraft.

“One of our GOES-16 scientists compared this to seeing a newborn baby’s first pictures — it’s that exciting for us,” said Stephen Volz, director of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Services, in a statement about the images. “These images come from the most sophisticated technology ever flown in space to predict severe weather on Earth.”

The project scientists aren’t the only ones excited about the capabilities of GOES-16. The new images, including animations created from images taken over the course of several hours, were cheered by attendees of presentations about GOES-16 at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) here this week.

“Everything we’re looking at so far is comparing well with our expectations,” said John Van Naarden, lead engineer of the ABI program at Harris Corporation, the instrument developer, during an AMS conference session Jan. 25. “The results are just stunning.”

ABI is one of six instruments on GOES-16, which also include a lightning detector and four solar monitoring and space weather instruments. All six instruments have powered up and achieved “first light,” collecting test data, said Elizabeth Kline of Science and Technology Corporation in another AMS presentation Jan. 25.

GOES-16 is currently in its post-launch testing period, which will continue through May, which thoroughly tests the instruments, the spacecraft itself, and the creation of the science products. “There’s a lot going on,” said Kline. “There’s a lot of procedures run in nominal and non-nominal modes to ensure that all aspects are working properly and to determine the real on-orbit conditions of the satellite.”

NOAA expects to decide in May, at the end of the testing period, whether to place GOES-16 at either its eastern or western slots in GEO, known as GOES-East and GOES-West. GOES-16 will become operational at the selected location in November.

GOES-R is the first in a series of four advanced weather satellites, a program with an estimated lifecycle cost of more than $10 billion that will provide weather services into the 2030s. The second spacecraft in the series, GOES-S, has been built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin and started vibrational and environmental tests in December. GOES-S is scheduled for launch in 2018, and will become GOES-17.

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...