History Abounds in Launch of Crucial Weather Satellite
The Delta 2 rocket lofts the NOAA-N Prime spacecraft into the night sky over Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Feb. 6, 2009.
Credit: NASA/Carleton Bailie, ULA

A last-of-its-kind weather observatory with roots reaching back to the earliest days of U.S. space exploration rocketed into orbit this morning to keep logging environmental records until a long-delayed new generation of satellites is ready.

Shrouded inside the white nose cone the Delta 2 rocket, the NOAA-N Prime spacecraft left its coastal launch pad in California at 2:22 a.m. local time (5:22 a.m. EST; 1022 GMT).

The night-owl ascent from Vandenberg Air Force Base was precisely timed to achieve the polar orbit where an aging predecessor satellite currently operates.

Valued at $564 million, the NOAA-N Prime satellite mission has the specific goal to further the distinguished legacy of tracking global weather conditions and compiling continuous climate data.

The satellite's family tree can be traced to 1960 and the launch of TIROS, the first Television Infrared Observation Satellite. Upgrades and technology advancements have evolved the civilian weather observatories through the decades. NOAA-N Prime is 43rd satellite launched in the long line and the 16th from its particular series that dates to 1978.

"Since the 1960s, we've gone from collecting and generating somewhat fuzzy cloud images of weather systems to producing crisp images of clouds, land and ocean features, collecting information about the vertical distribution of temperature and moisture in the atmosphere and developing products to support our broad range of environmental applications. So we've gone from launching weather satellites to environmental satellites," said Mike Mignogno, NOAA's program manager of Polar Operational Environmental Satellites.

NOAA-N Prime has a design life of two years. Its sister-satellites have had an average lifespan of 3.75 years, and officials hope to get as much use out of this spacecraft as possible.

"NOAA-N Prime is going to give us data the same as we've been getting in the past, but its main role is continuity of service and to restore some of the degraded instruments that we've had," said Tom Wrublewski, the satellite's acquisition manager. "So we're looking forward to a fresh satellite that has 100 percent of everything working and also help us continue our services until the next generation NPOESS satellites are ready."

NPOESS is the future of polar weather satellites. The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System will combine the civilian NOAA and U.S. military weather spacecraft into a single program, an effort started by the Clinton Administration in 1994.

But the new NPOESS satellites have been beset by technical and money problems, delaying the first craft's launch to January 2013.

To help bridge the gap from the heritage satellites to the next generation, a demonstration satellite called the NPOESS Preparatory Project is slated for deployment at the end of 2010.

"The NPP satellite, which carries the instruments that the NPOESS satellite is carrying, will give us the insurance of having a backup in orbit if for some reason N Prime fails before the launch and checkout of (the first NPOESS)," said Gary Davis, director of the Office of Systems Development at NOAA's Satellite and Information Service.

Circling 530 statute miles above Earth and completing a revolution every 100 minutes, the NOAA-N Prime will operate in the so-called "afternoon" polar orbit to replace NOAA-18 and its degraded instruments. The orbit crosses the equator from south to north at 2 p.m. local time on each trip around the planet.

A joint endeavor between NOAA and Europe's weather satellite agency has the "morning" orbit covered. The first MetOp satellite in that collaborative project launched in 2006.

"It's a good cooperation," Mignogno said. "We share the data and we both benefit from the fact that we're each providing only one satellite but getting the benefit of two."

Users of data from the polar-orbiting satellites are wide ranging. Meteorologists generate weather predictions, agricultural scientists need the information for drought management and monitoring vegetation and soil moisture and even the aviation community rely on the spacecraft to detect and track volcanic ash plumes for re-routing of aircraft.

NOAA-N Prime is outfitted with instruments that provide imagery, atmospheric temperature and humidity profiles, and land and ocean surface temperature observations, all of which are key ingredients for weather forecasting. In addition, the information generates decades-long databases for climate monitoring and global change studies.

"The data from polar-orbiting satellites such as NOAA-N Prime will be vital to our mission as we move forward to monitor and to predict not only current conditions in the atmosphere and oceans but also to keep tabs on the longer term climate trends," said Wayne Higgins, director, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center.

The Lockheed Martin-built satellite also carries an instrument to study the quantity and extent of ozone in the atmosphere and a space environment monitor that measures changes in the Earth's magnetic field and radiation belts caused by solar storms that can threaten astronauts and impact terrestrial communications, according to Wayne McIntyre, NASA's program manager for the Polar Operational Environmental Satellites.

In addition, the NOAA satellites are equipped with search and rescue packages that detect distress signals from emergency beacons. Over the past 26 years, the network has been credited with more than 24,000 rescues worldwide.

NOAA-N Prime had to overcome the perils of its past to even reach space. In September 2003, the spacecraft was severely damaged in a factory accident, falling on its side while being moved because workers failed to realize the satellite wasn't bolted to the handling cart. Extensive work went into rebuilding the craft.

Shipped to Vandenberg last November, the bird passed its final pre-flight testing and then rode to the launch pad in mid-January for mounting atop the Delta rocket.

Two back-to-back scrubs for pad-related glitches kept NOAA-N Prime on the ground a couple extra days this week, but the wait resulted in today's flawless ascent to orbit.

"The flight was just awesome. We hit the orbit right on the money. The apogee, perigee and inclination of the spacecraft looks right where we wanted it," NASA launch manager Omar Baez said.

This marked the 85th consecutive successful launch by a Delta 2 rocket and the 138th overall for the venerable booster that will celebrate its 20th birthday next week.

"We are proud to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Delta 2 by successfully launching this critically important spacecraft for both NASA and NOAA and we congratulate our mission partners on their success," said Jim Sponnick, United Launch Alliance's vice president of the Delta Product Line.

After arriving in space, the satellite sprung to life and unfurled its power-producing solar array. Two months of testing are planned before the craft goes to work as the final weather satellite in the long family history.

"A bunch of people that worked on this program for the full 30 years are all going to get together a couple weeks after the successful launch of N Prime and just reminisce about an era that's come to an end," Davis said.

"I think this is a very storied program," Mignogno said. "I think it's going to be a tough act to follow."

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