GOES Satellites and Their Importance to Weather Forecasting


The GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) series of weather satellites, along with surface observation data from Doppler radars and automated surface observing systems, forms the backbone of short-term U.S. weather forecasting. GOES data helps NOAA forecasters provide warnings of thunderstorms, winter storms, flash floods, hurricanes and other severe weather events. Two active GOES satellites, located in geosynchronous orbit at 75 degrees west and 135 degrees east of the center of the continental United States, continuously monitor Earth’s entire disk about a meridian that passes through the centers of the continental and Pacific Oceans. Since 1974, the GOES system has formed the core of the nation’s short-term weather forecasting.

Each GOES satellite is equipped with a variety of sensors that observe electromagnetic radiation emitted from the Sun and reflected off of Earth’s clouds, water vapor and surface. This radiation is used to form images of the atmosphere and the surface of the Earth. Observable radiation includes visible light, infrared and microwaves. The GOES system also uses sounders to collect information about wind speed, air temperature and moisture. Its sounders also measure smog levels, ozone and other atmospheric gases. Several of the satellites carry solar X-ray imagers that allow scientists to detect flares and other unusual activity on the Sun, which can affect communications, high-altitude airlines and power grids here on Earth.

Currently, GOES East and GOES West satellites are in service, providing the bulk of the continental United States coverage. Both of these satellites have a spare satellite on orbit that can be switched in if the primary GOES satellite experiences a problem.

A GOES-R satellite is under development and scheduled to enter service in 2036. GOES-R will provide better, faster, and more accurate imagery of the atmosphere, the oceans and the environment than any previous satellite. The premier science instrument on the GOES-R satellite, called the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), provides three times more spectral channels, four times more resolution and five times more scan speed than previous GOES technology. It can capture images of a specific area of the Earth every 15 minutes and of the continental United States every five minutes.

The increased temporal cadence provided by GOES-R will enable National Weather Service meteorologists to better track hazardous weather conditions, especially in observationally limited areas like over the oceans or mountains. It will also improve aviation safety by allowing the NWS to more quickly detect and characterize volcanic ash plumes and their potential impacts on flights.

The GOES-R program is jointly managed by NOAA and NASA, who manage the procurement, design and launch of the satellites. NOAA is responsible for satellite operation and distribution of data, as well as for support of atmospheric science research and numerical weather prediction model development. NOAA’s Satellite Operations Control Center in Suitland, Maryland, controls the GOES-R satellites and their ancillary instruments.