NOAA’s GOES Satellite Program Monitors Earth’s Surface and Atmosphere for Severe Weather Tracking and Prediction


The GOES satellite program provides vital environmental data to NOAA forecasters for severe weather tracking and prediction. Its key function is monitoring Earth’s surface and atmosphere through two types of electromagnetic radiation: visible light and infrared radiation. GOES’s geostationary orbit allows one satellite to watch the same region of the US over the course of a day, monitoring the atmospheric “triggers” that cause tornadoes, flash floods and hail storms, hurricanes, etc.

GOES has been in service for 40 years and is the largest fleet of operational environmental satellites ever launched by the United States. NOAA’s GOES satellites are operated by the National Weather Service, which is part of NOAA’s Office of Science and Technology (OSAT).

A GOES satellite orbits the Earth in the plane of its equator. NOAA maintains two geostationary GOES spacecraft, GOES East and GOES West. GOES East monitors the eastern half of the U.S., and GOES West monitors the western half of the country as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

Each GOES satellite has two main instruments: the GOES Imager and the GOES Sounder. The Imager senses radiated infrared energy from the Earth’s surface, atmosphere and clouds. It can detect the presence of water vapor, cloud top temperature and ozone. The Sounder measures reflected solar energy and emitted thermal energy to calculate vertical profiles of atmospheric temperatures and moisture.

There are other instruments on the GOES satellites that provide additional meteorological information. For example, the Search and Rescue Satellite (S&RSAT) is able to identify emergency beacons carried aboard aircraft and ships and send their location to ground stations for recovery. The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) can observe when lightning strikes the ground and detect lightning build-up in clouds, both of which are important for predicting the severity of storms and the likelihood of tornadoes.

The GOES-R series of satellites, which are scheduled to launch from 2017-2018, will have several improvements over previous generations of GOES spacecraft and their payloads. The Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) has a higher spatial resolution, meaning that it can discern smaller features of the atmosphere and surface. It can also detect smoke and dust at a much greater distance. In addition, the ABI has a built-in redundant sensor to improve its reliability.

These satellites will also have an enhanced Space Environment Monitor (SEM), which can detect the effects of space debris on the near-Earth solar-terrestrial electromagnetic environment. The GOES-R series will have the capability to transmit imagery and soundings directly to the ground, instead of using the SBN, which is currently used to do this.

The GOES-R satellites are also expected to have a faster scan rate than the current satellites, which will be able to provide 1-min imagery on demand in certain situations. For instance, GOES-14 has been used for this purpose as part of the Super Rapid Scan Operations for GOES-R (SRSOR) experiment, which provided near-real-time 1min imagery to forecasters during severe weather events in 2012-16. This new capability is expected to increase the value of the GOES-R satellites and allow them to be used in new ways for operational meteorology.