The next time a major storm like Hurricane Matthew approaches Virginia, forecasters may have a better idea where it’s going and who should evacuate.
A satellite that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says will revolutionize forecasting of severe weather blasted off Saturday night from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop an Atlas V rocket.
At 6:42 p.m., as the day's launch window closed, the nearly 200-foot United Launch Alliance rocket bolted from Launch Complex 41 with more than 2.2 million pounds of thrust from a Russian main engine and four solid rocket boosters.
NOAA’s GOES-R satellite was deployed in orbit around 10:15 p.m. to complete a successful launch.
Dozens of TV meteorologists were at the Cape to see the launch and eager to take advantage of the satellite's capabilities once it officially enters service in about a year.
“What’s so exciting is that we’re going to be getting more data, more often, much more detailed, (in) higher resolution,” said Al Roker, host and weatherman on NBC’s “Today" show, in an interview with NASA TV. “It gives us the opportunity to be able to give that information much more quickly to our viewers. And the more lead time there is, the better it is for people.”
The $1 billion satellite built by Lockheed Martin is the first of four to fly as part of an $11 billion upgrade to NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite program, or GOES, over the next 20 years.
The program flies two satellites over the eastern and western United States that hover more than 22,000 miles above the equator.
The new satellite’s centerpiece is an imaging instrument — provided by Melbourne-headquartered Harris Corp. — that promises to deliver improved performance likened to a leap from black-and-white to high-definition color TV.
“This is a historic mission for NOAA,” said Greg Mandt, the agency’s GOES-R system program director. “We are bringing a level of technology into this mission that is really going to revolutionize weather forecasting.”
Scans of the Western Hemisphere from North Pole to South Pole will be collected five times faster — in just five minutes.
At the same time, images of local storm events can be refreshed as often as every 30 seconds. That means almost real-time, movie quality views will replace the blurrier time-lapse images available now.
The pictures will collect three times more information with four times better resolution, revealing features never seen before.
Views down into a hurricane’s eye wall will help forecasters gauge if a storm is strengthening or weakening. That should improve tracking, and over time make for more accurate landfall predictions that prompt evacuation orders.
The imager will work with a new lightning mapper that will spot developing storms sooner, allowing forecasters to get warnings of tornadoes or flash floods out minutes earlier.
“If we can give people another 10, 15, 20 minutes, we’re talking about lives being saved,” said Roker.
NOAA plans to decide in six months whether to place the GOES-R satellite over the eastern or western U.S., determining its role in the next hurricane season. It will replace one of the current satellites, which launched in 2006 and 2010.
The next satellite in the series, called GOES-S, is expected to launch from Cape Canaveral early in 2018.
The GOES-R mission was delayed more than a week by Hurricane Matthew, which shut down Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for several days and delayed shipment of the Atlas booster.
The weather was perfect for Saturday's launch attempt, but a rocket problem and then an unspecified issue involving the Air Force’s Eastern Range delayed a planned 5:42 p.m. liftoff to the end of a one-hour window.
Omar Baez, the mission's launch director from NASA's Launch Services Program, said the launch team overcame challenges that started with the rocket's delayed rollout to the pad on Friday morning.
"It just snowballed from there," said Baez. "We were behind by quite a bit and were able to catch up, and worked through some issues not only on the Range but with some of the ground support equipment. And then were even affected by something that was going on on one of the other pads at the very end there."
The successful launch was ULA's 10th of the year, and the 67th by an Atlas V rocket since its debut in 2002.
The next mission from Cape Canaveral is targeted for Dec. 7. United Launch Alliance is preparing a Delta IV rocket to launch a military communications satellite.