Atlas V rocket blasts off with next-gen weather satellite

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The next time a major storm like Hurricane Matthew approaches Florida, 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 severe weather forecasting blasted off Saturday night from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop an Atlas V rocket.

At 6:42 p.m. ET, as the day’s launch window closed, the nearly 200-foot United Launch Alliance rocket shot from Launch Complex 41 with more than 2.2 million pounds of thrust from a Russian main engine and four solid-fuel rocket boosters.

NOAA’s GOES-R satellite was scheduled to be deployed in orbit about 3 1/2 hours later, around 10:15 p.m.

The $1 billion GOES-R satellite is the first of four to fly as part of an $11 billion upgrade to NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite program, or GOES.

The program flies two satellites over the Eastern and Western United States, in an orbit more than 22,000 miles above the equator.

The new satellite’s centerpiece imaging instrument, provided by Harris Corp., promises to deliver a performance improvement that officials liken to jumping from black-and-white to high-definition color TV.

Scans of the Western Hemisphere, from the North Pole to the 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 replacing the blurry, time-lapse images available now.

The pictures will contain three times more data 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.

The imager will work with a new lightning mapper that will spot developing storms sooner, allowing forecasters to get tornado or flash flood warnings out minutes earlier, likely saving lives.

GOES-R, which will be re-named GOES-16 once in orbit, won’t officially enter service for a year, after extensive tests. NOAA plans to decide in six months whether to place the satellite over the Eastern or Western U.S., determining its role in the next hurricane season.

The second satellite in the new series, called GOES-S, is expected to launch from Cape Canaveral in early 2018.

The next mission from Cape Canaveral is targeted for Dec. 7, with a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket preparing to launch a military communications satellite.

Follow James Dean on Twitter: @flatoday_jdean

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