LITTLETON, Co. – NASA and NOAA are preparing to launch the most sophisticated weather satellites yet to continue improving forecasting of severe weather events. Before blasting off from Florida's coast, engineers at Lockheed Martin in Colorado are building the spacecraft to ensure they can act as meteorological eyes in the sky.
The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program is a partnership between NOAA and NASA. The history of the satellites dates back to some of the first Earth-imaging satellites in the 1960s.
Currently, in orbit, more than 22,000 miles above Earth, are GOES-16 and GOES-17. Combined, the satellites can continuously observe the western hemisphere. Both are part of the GOES-R generation of spacecraft. In March, another satellite in the series, GOES-T, will launch from Cape Canaveral on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
The final satellite in the series, GOES-U, is currently in Littleton, Colorado undergoing final preparations in Lockheed Martin's cleanroom.
FOX Weather correspondent and meteorologist Steve Bender visited the spacecraft clean room and spoke to engineers who designed, created and tested the GOES spacecraft.
GOES-16 was the first satellite to include a Geostationary lightning mapper. The instrument detects lighting at the top of the clouds, including at night.
Arleen Knaub is the deputy program manager for GOES at Lockheed Martin. She said the lightning mapper has improved severe weather forecasting, including tornadoes.
"Weather prediction has greatly improved in the last four years, and it's mainly due to the machine learning combined with the science data we're collecting, so they get this science data down, and they're able to see trends," Knaub said.
Forecasters can predict when and where tornadoes will form using the lightning mapper. GOES-16 has observed an uptick in lighting strikes and then a sharp decrease.
"They know that a tornado is going to form within the next 15 minutes, which gives us advance warning," Knaub said. "We actually save lives."
The lightning mapper has increased the lead time on thunderstorm and tornado warnings and helped the National Weather Service warn earlier of potential lightning ground strike hazards.
GOES satellites synchronize their orbits with Earth, imaging the planet every 30 seconds using a range of instruments.
One of those instruments, called the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), can image Earth's weather, climate, oceans and environments using 16 spectral bands, providing five-times faster coverage than the previous generation of GOES satellites.
This instrument can detect ocean temperature, which helps hurricane forecasting, most recently with Hurricane Ida.
"The latest hurricane that hit as it was going through the Gulf it was decreasing but in the past, we would have said, 'Ok this is dying out,' but we knew due to the ABI imagery there was a lot of warm water it was going to hit," Knaub said.
As a result, NOAA accurately predicted the rapid intensification of Hurricane Ida in August 2021, which made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 storm packing 150 mph winds.
The GOES-T satellite is scheduled to launch on March 1 and become GOES-18 once in orbit. GOES-U is set to launch in a few years.