U.S. weather satellite that is ‘a quantum leap’ poised for launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla A U.S. weather satellite that will “revolutionize” forecasting was scheduled for launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Saturday, promising to deliver continuous high-definition views of hurricanes and other storms over the Western Hemisphere.

The detailed view provided by the satellite is expected to sharpen hurricane forecasts, provide more advanced warning of floods and better tracking of wildfires, plumes and volcanic ash clouds.

Scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:42 p.m. EST, the GOES-R satellite is capable of taking a complete picture of the hemisphere every five minutes while simultaneously zooming in on fires, volcanic eruptions or severe rain in specific regions.

The satellite, the 17th in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) series, is the first to be launched since 2010. It is a step up from its predecessors, which take 30 minutes to image the hemisphere and are not capable of carrying out multiple tasks at the same time.

“This is a quantum leap,” Sandra Cauffman, deputy director of Earth Sciences at NASA, said at a news conference on Thursday. “It will truly revolutionize weather forecasting.”

The satellite rests on top of an Atlas 5 rocket developed by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co..

The heart of the new satellite is a high-resolution camera, designed and built by Exelis Inc, a subsidiary of Harris Corp.. It can see in 16 wavelengths, compared with the five available with the current system.

GOES-R, developed by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has four times better resolution and can take images five times faster than its predecessors, NOAA program scientist Steven Goodman said.

The satellite’s capabilities go beyond weather forecasting. The sharper view will enable forecasters to see waves in clouds, for example, so that pilots can avoid turbulence and give airline passengers smoother rides.

GOES-R, built by Lockheed, includes the first operational lightning mapper, which will image lightning fields in the western hemisphere 200 times a second, NOAA said.

GOES-R is the first of four satellites in a system upgrade that will cost $11 billion, including launch fees, said NOAA Assistant Administrator Stephen Volz. The next satellite is slated for launch in 2018.

GOES, along with a second, polar-orbiting weather satellite network operated by NOAA, has faced cost overruns and program delays due to technical issues and mismanagement, according to a December 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Once in orbit, the new satellite will undergo about 11 months of testing before it joins the operational fleet, which now numbers three units, NOAA said.

(Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)

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