New Age in Weather Forecasting Begins with Spectacular 1st Images from NASA/NOAA GOES-16 Observatory

GOES-16 (previously known as GOES-R) captured this view of the moon as it looked across the surface of the Earth on January 15, 2017. Like earlier GOES satellites, GOES-16 will use the moon for calibration. Credit: NOAA/NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A new age has begun in the nations weather forecasting capabilities with the release today (Jan. 23) of the spectacular first images gathered by the recently launched NASA/NOAA GOES-16 observatory.

The highly advanced Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-16 (GOES-16) weather observatory lifted off two months ago atop a ULA Atlas V rocket on Nov. 19, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

GOES-16 (formerly known as GOES-R through the launch) is the first in a new series of revolutionary NASA/NOAA geostationary weather satellites that entails the first significant instrument upgrade to US weather forecasting capabilities in more than two decades.

“It will be like high-definition from the heavens,” says NOAA.

“Today’s release of the first images from #GOES16 signals the start of a new age in satellite weather observation!!!”

Thus the newly obtained and published imagery has been anxiously awaited by scientists, meteorologists and ordinary weather enthusiasts.

“This is such an exciting day for NOAA! 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 Ph.D. director of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, in a statement.

“These images come from the most sophisticated technology ever flown in space to predict severe weather on Earth. The fantastically rich images provide us with our first glimpse of the impact GOES-16 will have on developing life-saving forecasts.”

This image clearly shows the significant storm system that crossed North America that caused freezing and ice that resulted in dangerous conditions across the United States on January 15, 2017 resulting in loss of life. Credit: NOAA/NASA

An especially eye-popping image taken by GOES -16 from its equatorial vantage point situated in geostationary orbit 22,300 miles (35,800 kilometers) above Earth and published today, shows both the Earth and the Moon together – as the lead image here.

The Earth/Moon combo shot is not only fantastically pleasing to the eye, but also serves a significant scientific purpose.

“Like earlier GOES satellites, GOES-16 will use the moon for calibration,” say NOAA officials.

“GOES-16 will boost the nation’s weather observation network and NOAA’s prediction capabilities, leading to more accurate and timely forecasts, watches and warnings.”

GOES-16 is the most advanced and powerful weather observatory ever built and will bring about a ‘quantum leap’ in weather forecasting.

“Seeing these first images from GOES-16 is a foundational moment for the team of scientists and engineers who worked to bring the satellite to launch and are now poised to explore new weather forecasting possibilities with this data and imagery,” said Volz.

“The incredibly sharp images are everything we hoped for based on our tests before launch. We look forward to exploiting these new images, along with our partners in the meteorology community, to make the most of this fantastic new satellite.”

It’s dramatic new imagery will show the weather in real time enabling critical life and property forecasting, help pinpoint evacuation zones and also save people’s lives in impacted areas of severe weather including hurricanes and tornadoes.

And the huge satellite can’t come online soon enough, as demonstrated by the severe winter weather and tornadoes that just wreaked havoc and death in various regions of the US.

Another breathtaking image product (seen below) produced by the GOES-16 Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument, built by Harris Corporation, shows a full-disc view of the Western Hemisphere in high detail — at four times the image resolution of existing GOES spacecraft.

This composite color full-disk visible image shows North and South America and was taken on January 15, 2017. It was created using several of the 16 spectral channels available on the GOES-16 Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument. Credit: NOAA/NASA

The 11,000 pound satellite was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin and is the first of a quartet of four identical satellites – comprising GOES-R, S, T, and U – at an overall cost of about $11 Billion. This will keep the GOES satellite system operational through 2036.

This next generation of GOES satellites will replace the currently operating GOES East and GOES West satellites.

NOAA will soon decide whether GOES-16 will replace either the East or West satellites. A decision from NOAA is expected in May. GOES-16 will be operational by November 2017 as either the GOES-East or GOES-West satellite. Of course everyone wants it first.

The next satellite is nearing assembly completion and will undergo about a year of rigorous environmental and acoustic testing before launch. It will go to whichever slot was not selected this year.

This 16-panel image shows the continental United States in the two visible, four near-infrared and 10 infrared channels on the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI). These channels help forecasters distinguish between differences in the atmosphere like clouds, water vapor, smoke, ice and volcanic ash. Credit: NOAA/NASA

The six instrument science suite includes the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) built by Harris Corporation, the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) built by Lockheed Martin, Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI), Extreme Ultraviolet and X-Ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS), Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS), and the Magnetometer (MAG).

ABI is the primary instrument and will collect 3 times more spectral data with 4 times greater resolution and scans 5 times faster than ever before – via the primary Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument – compared to the current GOES satellites.

Northeast Coast and New York Metropolitan region. On January 15, 2017 severe weather moved across the central United States before passing through the Northeast on the 16th and 17th where it resulted in wet and wintry weather for travelers across the region. Credit: NOAA/NASA

“The higher resolution will allow forecasters to pinpoint the location of severe weather with greater accuracy. GOES-16 can provide a full image of Earth every 15 minutes and one of the continental U.S. every five minutes, and scans the Earth at five times the speed of NOAA’s current GOES imagers.”

The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of successful launch on a ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016. GOES-R/GOES-16 will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

GOES-R launched on the massively powerful Atlas V 541 configuration vehicle, augmented by four solid rocket boosters on the first stage. As I witnessed and reported here.

Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) on ULA Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016. GOES-R will deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Florida and The Caribbean. In May 2017, NOAA will announce the planned location for GOES-16. By November 2017, GOES-16 will be operational as either the GOES-East or GOES-West satellite. At its current check out location the satellite captured this image of the Caribbean and Florida. Here the satellite captures the shallows waters of the Caribbean. Credit: NOAA/NASA

Atlas V Fire and Fury Get Gorgeous GOES-R to Geostationary Orbit; Photo/Video Gallery

Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather satellite on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 - as seen from remote camera at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  GOES-R will deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather satellite on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 – as seen from remote camera at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. GOES-R will deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The fire and fury of the mighty ULA Atlas V got the gorgeous NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather observatory to geostationary orbit just days ago – as a ‘Thanksgiving’ present to all the people of Earth through the combined efforts of the government/industry/university science and engineering teams of hard working folks who made it possible.

Check out this dazzling photo and video gallery from myself and several space journalist colleagues showing how GOES got going – from prelaunch to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:42 p.m. EST in the evening on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.

Three and a half hours after liftoff, the bus sized spacecraft successfully separated from the Atlas Centaur upper stage and deployed its life giving solar arrays.

ULA Atlas V rocket and GOES-R weather observatory streak to orbit from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit:  Julian Leek
ULA Atlas V rocket and GOES-R weather observatory streak to orbit from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

GOES-R is the most advanced and powerful weather observatory ever built and will bring about a ‘quantum leap’ in weather forecasting.

It’s dramatic new imagery will show the weather in real time enabling critical life and property forecasting, help pinpoint evacuation zones and also save people’s lives in impacted areas of severe weather including hurricanes and tornadoes.

Here’s a pair of beautiful launch videos from space colleague Jeff Seibert and myself:

Video Caption: 5 views from the launch of the NOAA/NASA GOES-R weather satellite on 11/19/2016 from Pad 41 CCAFS on a ULA Atlas. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Video Caption: Launch of the NOAA/NASA GOES-R weather observatory satellite on Nov. 19, 2016 from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a ULA Atlas V rocket – as seen in this remote video taken at the pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

GOES-R is the first in a new series of revolutionary NASA/NOAA geostationary weather satellites that will soon lead to more accurate and timely forecasts, watches and warnings for the Earth’s Western Hemisphere when it becomes fully operational in about a year.

Ignition of  ULA Atlas V rocket and GOES-R weather observatory at launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit:  Julian Leek
Ignition of ULA Atlas V rocket and GOES-R weather observatory at launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

GOES-R, which stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series – is a new and advanced transformational weather satellite that will vastly enhance the quality, speed and accuracy of weather forecasting available to forecasters for Earth’s Western Hemisphere.

The 11,000 pound satellite was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin and is the first of a quartet of four identical satellites – comprising GOES-R, S, T, and U – at an overall cost of about $11 Billion. This will keep the GOES satellite system operational through 2036.

Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather satellite on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 - as seen from remote camera at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather satellite on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 – as seen from remote camera at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The science suite includes the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) built by Harris Corporation, the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) built by Lockheed Martin, Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI), Extreme Ultraviolet and X-Ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS), Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS), and the Magnetometer (MAG).

ABI is the primary instrument and will collect 3 times more spectral data with 4 times greater resolution and scans 5 times faster than ever before – via the primary Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument – compared to the current GOES satellites.

Atlas V and GOES-R aloft after Nov. 19, 2016 liftoff of the powerful NASA/NOAA weather observatory on ULA Atlas V from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida - as seen from the VAB roof.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Atlas V and GOES-R aloft after Nov. 19, 2016 liftoff of the powerful NASA/NOAA weather observatory on ULA Atlas V from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida – as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

GOES-R launched on the massively powerful Atlas V 541 configuration vehicle, augmented by four solid rocket boosters on the first stage.

The payload fairing is 5 meters (16.4 feet) in diameter. The first stage is powered by the Russian built duel nozzle RD AMROSS RD-180 engine. And the Centaur upper stage is powered by a single-engine Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C engine.

This was only the fourth Atlas V launch employing the 541 configuration.

ULA Atlas V rocket and GOES-R weather observatory at launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit:  Dawn Leek Taylor
ULA Atlas V rocket and GOES-R weather observatory at launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Track mobile used to push ULS Atlas V and NASA/NOAA GOES-R to pad 41 from VIF processing facility. Credit: Lane Hermann
Track mobile used to push ULS Atlas V and NASA/NOAA GOES-R to pad 41 from VIF processing facility. Credit: Lane Hermann
Launch of NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather observatory on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, as seen from Playalinda beach. Credit: Jillian Laudick
Launch of NASA/NOAA GOES-R weather observatory on ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016 from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, as seen from Playalinda beach. Credit: Jillian Laudick
Atlas V/GOES-R launch as seen rising over neighbor houses in Titusville, Florida  on Nov. 19, 2016. Credit: Melissa Bayles
Atlas V/GOES-R launch as seen rising over neighbor houses in Titusville, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016. Credit: Melissa Bayles
Atlas V rocket and GOES-R nighttime launch soars over the swimming pool at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida  on Nov. 19, 2016. Credit: Wesley Baskin
Atlas V rocket and GOES-R nighttime launch soars over the swimming pool at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016. Credit: Wesley Baskin
The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of launch on a ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016.  GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of launch on a ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016. GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Juno and the Deep Space Network: Bringing The Data Home

NASA's Deep Space Network is responsible for communicating with Juno as it explores Jupiter. Pictured is the Goldstone facility in California, one of three facilities that make up the Network. Image: NASA/JPL

The much-anticipated arrival of NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter is almost here. Juno will answer many questions about Jupiter, but at the cost of a mission profile full of challenges. One of those challenges is communicating with Juno as it goes about its business in the extreme radiation environment around Jupiter. Communications with Juno rely on a network of radio dishes in strategic locations around the world, receivers cooled to almost absolute zero, and a team of dedicated people.

The task of communicating with Juno falls to NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), a system of three facilities around the world whose job it is to communicate with all of the spacecraft that venture outside Earth’s vicinity. That network is in the hands of Harris Corporation, experts in all sorts of communications technologies, who are contracted to run these crucial facilities.

The person responsible is Sonny Giroux, DSN Program Manager at Harris. In an interview with Universe Today, Sonny explained how the DSN works, and describes some of the challenges the Juno mission poses.

“The network itself consists of three primary communication facilities; one in Goldstone, California, out in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The other facility is in Madrid Spain, and the third is in Canberra Australia. These three facilities are separated by about 120 degrees, which means that any spacecraft that’s out there is capable of communicating with Earth at any point in time,” said Giroux.

Deep Space Network facilities are positioned 120 degrees apart to give total sky coverage. Image: NASA/JPL
Deep Space Network facilities are positioned 120 degrees apart to give total sky coverage. Image: NASA/JPL

“Each facility has several antennae, the largest of which is 70 m in diameter, about the size of a football field. These antennae can be aimed at any angle. Then there are smaller antennae at 34 m in size, and we have a number of those at each complex.”

According to Giroux, the dishes can work independently, or be arrayed together, depending on requirements. At the DSN website, you can see which antenna is communicating with which of NASA’s missions at any time.

At the Deep Space Network's website, you can see which of the network's dishes are communicating with which spacecraft. Image: NASA/JPL/DSN
At the Deep Space Network’s website, you can see which of the network’s dishes are communicating with which spacecraft. During Juno’s mission, you can expect to see its name beside many of the dishes. Image: NASA/JPL/DSN

Juno is a complex mission with a dynamic orbit, and Jupiter itself is an extreme radiation environment. Juno will have to weave its way through Jupiter’s radiation belts in its polar orbit. According to Giroux, this creates additional communication problems for the DSN.

“As Juno goes into its orbital insertion phase, the spacecraft will have to turn away from Earth. Our signal strength will drop dramatically,” Giroux said. “In order to capture the data that Juno is going to send, we’re going to array all of our antennae at Goldstone and Canberra together.”

Juno's orbit around Jupiter will be highly elliptical as it contends with Jupiter's powerful radiation belts. Image: NASA/JPL
Juno’s orbit around Jupiter will be highly elliptical as it contends with Jupiter’s powerful radiation belts. Image: NASA/JPL

This means that a total of 9 antennae will be arrayed in two groups to communicate with Juno. The 4 dishes at the Canberra, Australia site will be arrayed together, and the 5 dishes at the Goldstone, California site will be arrayed together.

This combined strength is crucial to the success of Juno during JOI (Juno Orbital Insertion.) Said Giroux, “We need to bring Juno’s signal strength up to the maximum amount that we can. We need to know what phases Juno is in as it executes its sequence.”

“We’ve never arrayed all of our antennae together like this. This is a first for Juno.”

This combined receiving power is a first for the DSN, and another first for the Juno mission. “We’ve never arrayed all of our antennae together like this,” said Giroux. “This is a first for Juno. We’ve done a couple together before for a spacecraft like Voyager, which is pretty far out there, but never all of them like this. In order to maximize our success with Juno, we’re arraying everything. It will be the first time in our history that we’ve had to array together all of our assets.”

Arraying multiple dishes together provides another benefit too, as Giroux told us. “The DSN is able to have two centres view the spacecraft at the same time. If one complex goes down for whatever reason, we would have the other one still available to communicate with the spacecraft.”

The most visible part of the DSN are the antennae themselves. But the electronics at the heart of the system are just as important. And they’re unique in the world, too.

“We cool them down to almost absolute zero to remove all of the noise out.”

“We have very specialized receivers that are built for the DSN. We cool them down to almost absolute zero to remove all of the noise out. That allows us to really focus on the signal that we’re looking for. These are unique to DSN,” said Giroux.

Juno itself has four different transmitters on-board. Some are able to transmit a lot of data, and some can transmit less. These will be active at different times, and form part of the challenge of communicating with Juno. Giroux told us, “Juno will be cycling through all four as it performs its insertion and comes back out again on the other side of the planet.”

“We just get the ones and zeroes…”

The DSN is a communications powerhouse, the most powerful tool ever devised for communicating in space. But it doesn’t handle the science. “DSN for the most part will receive whatever the spacecraft is sending to us. We just get the ones and zeroes and relay that data over to the mission. It’s the mission that breaks that down and turns it into science data.”

The three facilities that make up the DSN. Each is separated by 120 degrees. Image: NASA/JPL
The three facilities that make up the DSN. Each is separated by 120 degrees. Image: NASA/JPL

Juno will be about 450 million miles away at Jupiter, which is about a 96 minute round trip for any signal. That great distance means that Juno’s signal strength is extremely weak. But it won’t be the weakest signal that the DSN contends with. A testament to the strength of the DSN is the fact that it’s still receiving transmissions from the Voyager probes, which are transmitting at miniscule power levels. According to Giroux, “Voyager is at a billionth of a billionth of a watt in terms of its signal strength.”

Juno is different than other missions like New Horizons and Voyager 1 and 2. Once Juno is done, it will plunge into Jupiter and be destroyed. So all of its data has to be captured quickly and efficiently. According to Giroux, that intensifies the DSN’s workload for the Juno mission.

“Juno is different. We’ve got to make sure to capture that data regularly.”

“Juno has a very defined mission length, with start and stop dates. It will de-orbit into Jupiter when it’s finished its science phase. That’s different than other missions like New Horizons where it has long periods where its able to download all of the data it’s captured. Juno is different. We’ve got to make sure to capture that data regularly. After JOI we’ll be in constant communication with Juno to make sure that’s happening.”

To whet our appetites, the ESO has released these awesome IR images of Jupiter, taken by the VLT. Credit: ESO
In preparation for the arrival of Juno, the ESO’s released stunning IR images of Jupiter, taken by the VLT. Credit: ESO

The next most important event in Juno’s mission is its orbital insertion around Jupiter, and Giroux and the team are waiting for that just like the rest of us are. “Juno’s big burn as it slows itself enough to be captured by Jupiter is a huge milestone that we’ll be watching for,” said Giroux.

The first signal that the DSN receives will be a simple three second beep. “Confirmation of the insertion will occur at about 9:40 p.m.,” said Giroux. That signal will have been sent about 45 minutes before that, but the enormous distance between Earth and Jupiter means a long delay in receiving it. But once we receive it, it will tell us that Juno has finished firing its engine for orbital insertion. Real science data, including images of Jupiter, will come later.

“We want to see a successful mission as much as anybody else.”

All of the data from the DSN flows through the nerve center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When the signal arrives indicating that Juno has fired its engines successfully, Giroux and his team will be focussed on that facility, where news of Juno’s insertion will first be received. And they’ll be as excited as the rest of us to hear that signal.

“We want to see a successful mission as much as anybody else. Communicating with spacecraft is our business. We’ll be watching the same channels and websites that everybody else will be watching with bated breath,” said Giroux.

“Its great to be a part of the network. It’s pretty special.”