NASA, NOAA launch GOES-U aboard SpaceX Falcon Heavy

by Sawyer Rosenstein

The final satellite of the GOES-R series of satellites, GOES-U, was launched on June 25 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, defying an initial unfavorable weather forecast that became 70 percent favorable as weather cleared. The two-hour window opened at 5:16 PM EDT (21:16 UTC), but the vehicle took off from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center ten minutes later, at 5:26 PM EDT (21:26 UTC).

The spacecraft will be placed into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) before it takes its final orbital position in Geostationary Orbit (GEO). The two side boosters will then return to land at LZ-1 and LZ-2 located within Cape Canaveral Space Force Station just miles away from where it took off.

GOES-R program

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) program saw the launch of GOES-R in 2016 aboard an Atlas V. While NASA and NOAA have a fleet of weather satellites, the four most recent satellites, including GOES-U, offer three times more channels, four times better resolution, and scans that are five times faster than their predecessors.

This information is used for near real-time weather predictions, in particular during severe weather such as hurricanes. Between GOES-R, renamed GOES-16 and currently operating as GOES East, and GOES-T, known as GOES-18 and operating as GOES-West, the constellation can be seen from the west coast of Africa to New Zealand.

GOES-U undergoes testing in a Lockheed Martin clean room. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

“Systems move in and out and we get long lead times,” said Jim Valenti, the assistant program director for the GOES-R satellite program at NOAA, in an interview with NSF. “Then we’re looking consistently and persistently at the continental United States for any kind of an issue, as well as just, hey, what’s going on? If nothing’s going on, then there’s nothing.”

In addition to having the additional view to be able to track systems as they form, Valenti noted that the time between images from the current GOES satellites decreased from 30 minutes to 30 seconds. He says a conversation with a meteorologist from Orlando led to an analogy that stuck with him.

“One of the things he said is with the refresh rate that we have and the resolution, he said it’s like watching liquid now as opposed to like a flipbook or, you know, from an animation standpoint,” Valenti recalled. “And for severe storm activity, be it a front with thunderstorms and a lot of lightning or a hurricane, the human intuition is able to read that liquid and put that together with the other data that they get from surface observables and satellite instrumentation that doesn’t provide an image, but maybe provides temperature soundings.”

These satellites all operate 24/7 with very minimal downtime. Pam Calderwood, the deputy project manager for GOES-U at Lockheed Martin, noted in an interview with NSF that sometimes they even have to complete updates and upgrades to the spacecraft’s software mid-observation.

Hurricane Humberto as seen from NOAA’s GOES-East satellite on Sept. 15, 2019.
Hurricane Humberto as seen from NOAA’s GOES East satellite (formerly GOES-R). (Credit: NOAA)

“When you take a look at an image that’s located 22,300 miles above the Earth, any type of jitter, you know how you get camera jitter, will go through and make the images pretty much worthless,” Calderwood said. “So what’s real important, and that’s why they have two systems, is we have to be communicating, 24 hours a day, 365 [days a year].”

Once launched, GOES-U will be renamed to GOES-19. That will replace GOES-16 as the primary GOES-East satellite, which will then become a redundant backup. This is similar to how GOES-18 is currently active as GOES West with GOES-17 acting as a backup.

“These satellites are so important to our nation, the economy, and the populace for protecting life and property, that we are required, NOAA, to have an on-orbit backup at all times to fill in in case we have an issue with one of the operational spacecraft in either the east or the west locations,” Vanelti said. “So GOES-R will move to a storage location over the central United States and be placed in that role. It won’t be actively observing, but it is on orbit and ready to assume duties if we have some kind of incident with our east-to-west spacecraft.”


One major reason GOES-U will take the primary role is that it includes a new solar observation instrument called the Compact Coronograph-1 (CCOR), which images the sun’s outermost layer, the corona, to detect and characterize coronal mass ejections (CME).

The Compact Coronagraph instrument is installed onto GOES-U. (Credit: NOAA)

Both Valenti and Calderwood said the solar instruments on the GOES satellites, which also include the Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI) and Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS), are important in protecting technology as well as people.

“You can see that it’s really getting in on the impacts to our power grid. It affects GPS,” Calderwood said. “There are times when we have huge solar flares that are coming in that they actually will reroute airline flights. Of course, we’ve got astronauts up there at the International Space Station, that we have to be very concerned about them getting additional radiation.”

“[NOAA] works closely with power companies, satellite communications, GPS navigation to make sure they’re aware of the implications of the solar storm as well because those are the industries that are impacted by severe solar weather,” Valenti said.

With so much information being collected, Lockheed Martin had to come up with a way to relay the large amounts of data.

“Lockheed’s role specifically in the geostationary lightning mapper is we have to go through and compress the data,” Calderwood noted. “When there is approximately a million lightning strikes in the US every day, that’s tons and tons of images. And the way it’s able to do that is it literally goes out and it images 500 times per second.”

24 hours worth of lightning strikes as viewed by the GOES East lightning mapper. (Credit: NOAA)

“[NOAA’s] got their scientists that are working on absorbing data, and then the Lockheed satellite does the data collection and then goes through and sends it to other places in the United States as needed.”

This mission marks the first GOES satellite to be launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. After previously launching on Atlas V, which integrates vertically, it became a challenge to prepare the satellite for Falcon’s horizontal integration method.

“We had to design different fixtures, and there was a lot of design that went on to go through and take into account that we are now sitting with close to, what is it, 10,955 pounds,” Calderwood said. “Rather than sitting up on its end, like we had designed it for, it’s now sitting on its side.”

Calderwood noted that as a result, the process has taken longer as they deal with new configurations.

“We had to take a look at our electrical connections,” she said. “You know, do we have access to the electrical connections when you’re on your side versus in more of a stacked position? And then the whole idea of every single hazardous operation we had too.”


This Falcon Heavy flew with three brand-new boosters. The core stage, B1087, was expended. However, the side cores, B1072 and B1086, returned to LZ-1 and LZ-2 where they will be retrieved and flown again in the future, either as a Falcon Heavy side core or converted into a single stick Falcon 9.

At T-50 minutes, the first stage began to fill with RP-1, a refined form of kerosene. The first stage liquid oxygen (LOX) fill started about five minutes later. The first stage, including the core and side boosters, had approximately 287,000 kg of LOX and 123,000 kg of RP-1 when full.

Five minutes before liftoff, the second stage began receiving RP-1, followed by LOX loading approximately 17 minutes later. T-7 minutes until liftoff, the 27 Merlin 1D engines were chilled before ignition. Shortly before T-1 minute, Falcon Heavy’s onboard computers took over control of the count as the vehicle is “in startup,” followed shortly after by tanks reaching flight pressure.

Just before liftoff, the 27 engines on the side boosters and core began a staggered ignition process with the assistance of TEA/TEB. Once all engines reach full thrust, the vehicle checked its health. All was nominal, so 5.1 million pounds of thrust propelled the vehicle away from LC-39A.

Less than a minute after launch, Falcon Heavy reached Max-Q, when the vehicle endured the maximum dynamic forces during the flight.

All 27 engines continued to burn until about two and a half minutes after liftoff, when both side boosters cut off, followed by separation seconds later. Those boosters performed a maneuver to flip themselves around before conducting their second burn, called a boost back burn, which put B1072 and B1086 on course to return to LZ-1 and LZ-2.

About three and a half minutes into the flight, a series of events happened in quick succession. The center booster shut down its nine engines before separating from the second stage seconds later. Then, the second stage Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine ignited in a process known as second engine start one (SES-1). Shortly after, the payload fairing halves, which had been protecting the NOAA GOES-U satellite, are no longer needed and fell back to Earth to be recovered.

Meanwhile, a little more than seven minutes after lifting off, the two side boosters began their entry burn as they once again encountered Earth’s atmosphere. That put them on track for one final burn for each side booster, known as the landing burn. This final relight slowed the vehicles down until each gently and successfully touched down at LZ-1 and LZ-2 seconds apart from the other, completing their mission approximately eight and a half minutes after first lifting off a few miles away.

As this happened, the second stage completed its first burn leading to the second engine cutoff one (SECO-1). The next step involved a second relight, propelling the second stage and GOES-U to the geostationary transfer orbit.

The satellite’s final orbit will be in a circular 35,786 km (22,236 mi) equatorial orbit. Once it officially becomes GOES-East, which Valeti said is expected to occur as soon as April 2025, it will be located at a longitude of 75.2 degrees west.

Teams that worked on the spacecraft say they’re ready to see GOES-U fly.

“This satellite is the fourth in the series, so it’s kind of the culmination of over two decades of work,” Valenti said. “It adds on to the nearly 50 years of cooperation that NOAA and NASA have put together building and operating GOES.”

“It’s been a tremendous opportunity to go through and support such a legacy,” Calderwood said. “When I speak to the team and the shoulder-to-shoulder work with the Goddard Space Flight Center, they’ve got a thermal engineer, we’ve got a thermal engineer, and all throughout the testing, all throughout everything, they’ve been next to us side by side. This is truly in my entire career, one of the most integrated teams I’ve ever seen.”

(Lead image: Falcon Heavy launching with the GOES-U satellite on June 25, 2024. Credit: Tyler Gray for NSF)

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