Delta 4 rocket boosts weather satellite into orbit

Delayed a day by stormy weather, a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket boosted a new hurricane-tracking weather satellite into space Saturday.

Running a day late because of stormy weather, a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket boosted a new GOES weather satellite into space Saturday to serve as an orbital spare for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fleet of hurricane-tracking weather sentinels.

The Delta 4, equipped with two strap-on solid-fuel boosters, ignited with a rush of flame and smoke at 6:51 p.m. EDT and quickly climbed away from launch complex 37 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, arcing to the east and accelerating toward orbit.

"Three, two, one, and liftoff of the Delta 4 rocket with GOES-O, enhancing quality and reliability of the weather satellite for the forecaster," said NASA launch commentator George Diller.

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket carrying a new GOES weather satellite roars to life and blasts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. NASA TV

It was the 10th flight of a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket since 2002 and the second of three launches planned for this year.

A launch attempt Friday was called off because of thunderstorms and electrical activity near the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. More of the same was on tap Saturday and forecasters initially predicted a 70 percent chance of a launch delay.

Thunderstorms rolled over the launch pad during fueling, but conditions improved as the afternoon wore on and after a 37-minute delay to allow a storm cell to move past to the south, United Launch Alliance proceeded with the countdown.

The Delta 4's first stage performed normally, boosting the vehicle to an altitude of about 90 miles before falling away four-and-a-half minutes after liftoff.

The rocket's second stage then lofted the spacecraft into an initial parking orbit before two additional firings needed to place the 7,000-pound GOES-O satellite into an elliptical transfer orbit with a high point of about 21,800 miles and a low point of 4,100 miles.

The satellite separated from the Delta's second stage on time at 11:12 p.m. Onboard thrusters will be used to put the spacecraft in its final circular orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. That milestone is expected July 8 and if all goes well, Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems will turn the satellite over to the government on July 18.

With space shuttle Endeavour in the foreground atop pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, a Delta 4 rocket takes off to deliver a new weather satellite to orbit. NASA TV

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system provides the hemispheric views familiar from television weathercasts. Observations of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the East Coast are provided by the GOES-12 satellite--critical for hurricane tracking--with GOES-11 providing similar coverage of the the West Coast and the central Pacific Ocean past Hawaii.

GOES-O will be known as GOES-14 once at the station, joining the GOES-13 satellite, which was launched three years ago, as an orbital spare.

"GOES-O will provide another important operational asset to NOAA and will become part of the nation's infrastructure for both weather and environmental forecasting," said Steve Kirkner, GOES project manager at NASA.

The latest GOES satellites feature an imaging system and a sounder that collects atmospheric data needed to predict surface and cloud-top temperatures, moisture content, and ozone distribution. The imagers produce higher resolution pictures than earlier models, allowing forecasters to more accurately track small-scale features.

"The things we're looking for, tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, are very small in scale," said Joe Schaefer, director of NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. "The increased resolution and accuracy that these satellites will present will help us pinpoint what's happening, and if we know what's happening, we can do a better job of making short-term and long-term forecasts of where it's going to be."

Along with saving lives, improved resolution can lower costs as well.

"There's an old rule of thumb that if we can evacuate fewer people for a hurricane, for every mile we don't have to evacuate that saves you a million dollars on average," said Tom Wrublewski, technical acquisitions manager for the GOES project. "That translates into savings for you and I...and being able to know where tornadoes and other storms are."

Like all recent GOES satellites, the two newest models also include space environment sensors to measure energetic particles blown off by the sun, to monitor Earth's geomagnetic field, and to look for X-ray and ultraviolet emissions from powerful solar flares that can disrupt communications.

"GOES-O is going to better ensure that we have continuous coverage in the decade ahead, it's going to improve our imaging, atmospheric sounding, and our near-Earth space weather environmental measurements that are essential to accurate weather and solar forecasts," said Wrublewski.

Engineers will check out the new satellite and calibrate its instruments over the next two months to make sure the spacecraft is functioning normally. The first visible-light full-disk image of Earth is expected around July 28, and an X-ray instrument that will monitor solar flares will send down its initial test image August 6.

Once checkout is complete, the satellite will go into storage mode near GOES-13 to await call-up as needed. Projections indicate GOES-12 will begin running into fuel-shortage issues late this year, followed by similar issues with GOES-11. The new satellites have a 10-year design life.

"We don't really know when we're going to need it," said Marty Davis, an adviser to the GOES project. "We know the two operational satellites that are up there now are not perfect and are becoming less perfect as time goes on. So the next one to be operational will be GOES-13, which was launched three years ago. We don't think we'll have two spares for very long. The prediction is GOES-13 will be made operational by the end of the year."

Updated at 11:20 p.m. EDT: Confirming spacecraft separation from Delta 4 second stage; final launch event.

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About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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