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New GOES-T weather satellite to offer scientists sharper eyes on Earth's climate

An artist's depiction of the GOES-T satellite at work in Earth orbit.
An artist's depiction of the GOES-T satellite at work in Earth orbit. (Image credit: Lockheed Martin)

The GOES-T satellite is ready to take its place as part of the U.S.'s most sophisticated weather and environmental observation system.

The satellite, which will be operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will launch on Tuesday (March 1) aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasting off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. A two-hour launch window opens at 4:38 p.m. EST (2138 GMT) and NASA will livestream the launch, which you can also watch here on Space.com.

These satellites are "huge advancements in technology," James Yoe, a satellite scientist with the National Weather Service, told Space.com. "We're still learning how to exploit these satellites fully."

Related: 10 devastating signs of climate change satellites can see from space

The $11.7 billion GOES-R series, officially known as the Geostationary Environmental Observational Satellite – R Series, are a network of geostationary satellites and a collaborative program between NOAA and NASA. The satellites carry a comprehensive array of equipment to capture complex weather, climate and environmental data from high above the Earth.

GOES-T, which will become GOES-18 once it reaches orbit, will join GOES-16, which was launched in 2016 and is serving as the GOES-East satellite. The new spacecraft will replace GOES-17, which is currently serving as GOES-West. Together, GOES East and West cover much of the Western Hemisphere, from New Zealand to the western coast of Africa. GOES-17 will become a standby satellite once GOES-18 is active; the new satellite is expected to operate until about 2030.

GOES-T will carry largely the same array of technology as previous GOES-R satellites, but its Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), the main weather imaging system on the satellite, includes an upgraded cooling system. The ABI on GOES-17 glitched shortly after its launch in 2018 and does not work properly when it is directly facing the sun, which happens at times during the spring and fall. 

The new satellite will also have an improved magnetometer, which can detect variations in the Earth's magnetic field. Along with other instruments on the satellite, the magnetometer will help detect space weather, which can cause power, communications and navigational outages on Earth. Space weather is expected to strengthen as the sun reaches the peak of its 11-year activity cycle around 2025.

Data from GOES satellites' ABI instruments enables reliable weather forecasting, severe storm warnings and hurricane tracking. The satellites also carry a lightning tracker, which helps accurately forecast thunderstorm, hail and tornadoes. Along with being a crucial source of weather data, GOES satellites collect a wide variety Earth observations, including information on the atmosphere and oceans.

"More and more, we find we're able to use the imager, for example, to help us detect and fight wildfires, because it's so much more sensitive than the previous imager," Yoe told Space.com. He said the lightning mapper even detected a meteor that burned up over Pittsburgh on New Years' Day, even though the system wasn't designed to detect meteors.

"We're still learning all the time how to use these instruments," he said.

The satellites will also be an important tool in continuing to monitor global climate change, from tracking changes in Earth's clouds to observing the impacts of climate change on Earth's surface, like changes in vegetation and wildfire frequency. Although NOAA is already developing the next-generation satellites that will follow, like the Geostationary Extended Observations (GeoXO) satellites, the GOES-R satellites still carry advanced instruments that offer ever-expanding contributions to weather forecasting and climate science.

"What we have right now is really, truly advanced and state of the art," said Yoe. 

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Rebecca Sohn is a freelance science writer. She writes about a variety of science, health and environmental topics, and is particularly interested in how science impacts people's lives. She has been an intern at CalMatters and STAT, as well as a science fellow at Mashable. Rebecca, a native of the Boston area, studied English literature and minored in music at Skidmore College in Upstate New York and later studied science journalism at New York University.