The Next Generation of Geostationary Weather Satellites


Since 1975, geostationary equatorial satellites, known as GOES (pronounced “go-ess”), have provided continuous imagery and data on atmospheric conditions and solar activity (space weather), which have led to more accurate and timely weather forecasts and a better understanding of long-term climate conditions. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) builds the GOES, while NOAA oversees its operations.

The current GOES system includes the GOES-13 and GOES-15 satellites. It provides National Weather Service local weather forecast offices, national centers and volcanic ash advisory centers with a stream of environmental images. It also supports scientific research on land, atmosphere and oceans.

NOAA and NASA are preparing to launch the next generation of geostationary weather satellites. These spacecraft, known as the GOES-R Series, will provide more timely information about Earth’s Western Hemisphere, more accurate lightning mapping and enhanced monitoring of solar activity and space weather.

GOES-R will feature a new, advanced imager. This sensor will view the Earth in 16 different wavelengths, or spectral bands, ranging from visible to infrared. As a GOES-R education document puts it, “Imagine this as if you put on a pair of sunglasses with 16 different lenses that allow only certain wavelengths of light through.”

This will lead to more detailed and sharper pictures of the storm systems that form near the United States. For example, GOES-R will be able to measure cloud top heights and vertical velocity, two important weather properties that help determine how fast a thunderstorm is moving. Similarly, the satellite will be able to see how thick the clouds are. The GOES-R imager will also measure a third property of clouds called cloud optical depth, which is how much a cloud modifies the light that passes through it.

The GOES-R will also be able to monitor and track storms as they move across the Western Hemisphere. The satellite will be able to detect a wide range of weather phenomena, including tropical depressions, hurricanes and tornadoes. It will even have the ability to monitor volcanic ash plumes.

NOAA manages the GOES-R Series program through an integrated NOAA/NASA office and is responsible for the ground system contract, satellite operation and distribution of GOES data to users worldwide. NOAA’s GOES-R Series satellites are designated with a letter before launching and are then renamed when they reach geostationary orbit, which is 22,300 miles above the Earth’s equator. The first of the new satellites to reach geostationary orbit was GOES-16, which is currently operating as NOAA’s GOES East satellite. The next, GOES-T, is scheduled to launch March 1 and will become NOAA’s GOES West satellite after it reaches its geostationary position. The final satellite in the GOES-R Series, GOES-U, is planned to be launched in 2024. All of the GOES-R satellites will be equipped with a suite of instruments to measure a variety of atmospheric, hydrologic and oceanic observations, as well as improve direct services like WEFAX (WEFAX Radio Data System), EMWIN (Emergency Managers Weather Information Network) and LRIT (Low Rate Information Transmission). All of these are critical to supporting NOAA’s mission of delivering vital meteorological information to the Nation.