An Atlas V rocket is all set to launch this afternoon from Cape Canaveral, Florida, sending a NASA-built weather satellite into orbit. It’s the GOES-R probe, and it’s being touted as a game changer for weather forecasting. The spacecraft, which will also be operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is supposed to provide incredible real-time images of developing storm systems, better than any satellite that has preceded it.
To do this, GOES-R — which stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R — will scan Earth’s skies five times faster than the other GOES satellites currently in orbit, with four times the spatial resolution. “This means we’ll have better quality data at high resolution far more often than we do today,” Joe Pica, director of the Office of Observations at NOAA, said at a NASA press conference. Such information will allow NOAA scientists to see developing weather systems in unprecedented detail, which will improve our tracking of tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires. GOES-R even has a lightning mapper on board, meant to help forecasters know which storms are more severe than others. The information the satellite receives will help refine seasonal and weather predictions, improve warning times before storms, as well as help plan the best flight routes for airplanes.
While GOES-R will tell us more about the climate of Earth, the satellite is also equipped to give us more information about what our Sun is up to as well. Specifically, the probe will be able to measure the intensity of solar flares, which are responsible for causing “space weather” around Earth. A flare is often accompanied by something called a coronal mass ejection (CME) — a huge burst of charged particles that shoots out from the Sun. These CMEs can clash with our planet’s magnetic field, causing geomagnetic storms that mess with our satellites, communications systems, and even our power grid. GOES-R will be able to tell scientists whether a potentially problematic geomagnetic storm is headed our way.
In order to get all of this high quality weather information, GOES-R is headed to a geostationary orbit — a circular path about 22,000 miles above the Earth’s equator. This is a preferred orbit for many communication satellites, because spacecraft moving along this path follow the rotation of the planet. That way, they appear to be in the same spot in the sky at all times. Once it gets to geostationary orbit, GOES-R will be renamed GOES-16 and begin its science operations in about a year.
Liftoff of the Atlas V is scheduled for 5:42PM ET. Check back here at 4:45PM ET to watch live coverage of the launch.