GOES Goes Up

The United States launched ATS-1, the first geostationary satellite, in 1966. Although it had a television camera suitable for sending back grainy black-and-white photographs of Earth's cloud systems, its primary mission had been to test out communications systems. Because of the success of its meteorological application, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began work on a dedicated geostationary weather satellite. NASA launched the first prototype, the Synchronous Meteorological Satellite (SMS-1), from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 17, 1974, and placed it into orbit directly above the equator at 45°W longitude (the central Atlantic Ocean). It was followed by a second prototype, SMS-2, in February 1975 (above 135°W longitude—Pacific Ocean), and then by GOES-1 on October 16, 1975.

GOES-1 was the first operational meteorological satellite in the National Oceanic and


A "full-disk" satellite image from GOES-1. (© EUMETSAT/ NERC/Dundee University)


North Pole

© Infobase Publishing

South Pole

Geostationary satellites such as GOES remain in a high-altitude orbit over the same location, following Earth as it moves.


Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) geosynchronous weather satellite system. Over 15,000 solar cells powered the 650-pound (295-kg) cylinder, which was 75 inches (190 cm) in diameter and 106 inches (270 cm) high. The satellite carried a visible and infrared spin scan radiometer that allowed it to provide full-disk photographs of the Earth 24 hours a day. (The visible channel used the same technology as a regular camera; the infrared channel measured temperatures, with colder temperature clouds appearing bright white and warmer clouds appearing in shades of gray.) Placed into orbit over the Indian Ocean, when combined with the two SMS satellites, GOES-1 allowed meteorologists to track large weather


Six geostationary weather satellites in stationary orbit above Earth's equator transmit photos continuously, providing full coverage of Earth's surface and atmosphere.

events, including hurricanes and major frontal systems across 60 percent of Earth's surface. This was a huge boon for meteorologists. Although they had been able to "see" large tropical and frontal systems with polar orbiting satellites, the 12-hour delay between images of the same area made it difficult to track these systems. With GOES-1 and its cousins, they were able to get an updated picture every 30 minutes.

GOES-1 also allowed weather centers to transmit processed satellite images (including latitude/longitude grids) as well as weather maps all over the world. Weather centers would send signals carrying the maps to the satellite, which would bounce them down to receiving stations. GOES's Data Collection System enabled over 10,000 surface stations to transmit their observations to central processing centers for use in NWP models.

GOES-1 also provided finer-resolution images. With a one-kilometer visible resolution, meteorologists used these new images to advance their understanding of mesoscale features, including thunderstorms. With GOES, meteorologists effectively had an observation station every one kilometer across the satellite's "footprint" on Earth's surface—far closer together than surface observation stations. As a result, meteorologists used the presence of organized cumulus clouds in images to issue severe weather watches and warnings.

NASA launched three additional GOES satellites during this decade, replacing the earlier SMS and GOES-1 satellites and providing additional remote sensing capability to meteorologists. Continued advances throughout the century would provide increasing amounts of information to atmospheric scientists, enhancing their ability to create increasingly complex numerical models of the atmosphere.

underlying physics. Satellites were to become an important tool in cracking the secrets of tropical storms.

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