Powerful Atlas V rocket launches NOAA's GOES-T weather satellite; SpaceX flying next

Emre Kelly
Florida Today

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A powerful Atlas V rocket leapt off its Cape Canaveral pad Tuesday afternoon, its weather satellite payload secured for a roughly two-week journey to orbit thousands of miles above Earth.

The 196-foot rocket, its 2.3 million pounds of thrust courtesy of one main engine and four add-on solid rocket boosters, took to the skies at 4:38 p.m. EST with GOES-T, a new weather satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The satellite will reach its final orbital position 22,236 miles above Earth on March 12.

Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, or GOES, is an NOAA program that has vaulted three of the school bus-sized satellites to orbit since 2016: GOES-R, GOES-S, and now GOES-T. The next satellite labeled "U" is slated for launch from Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2024.

The new satellites promise massive increases in resolution and speed and have been credited with better understanding natural disasters over the last several years. On top of day-to-day weather forecasting, the GOES series has observed hurricanes bearing down on Florida, wildfires in California and Colorado, and even volcanic eruptions. GOES satellites have even watched other GOES satellites launch from Florida thanks to their high-resolution hardware. 

GOES-T's main instrument, the Advanced Baseline Imager or ABI, is designed and manufactured by a contractor familiar to the Space Coast: Melbourne-based L3Harris. The satellites are built by Lockheed Martin near Denver, Colorado, before moving to Florida via Air Force transports.

The latest cost estimate for the program sits at $11.7 billion, according to NOAA.

Atlas V's Russian main engine

ULA's launch was another reminder of international tensions – and technological entwinement – as Russia continued pushing with its invasion of Ukraine.

The rocket's RD-180 main engine is made by Russian company NPO Energomash and is one of the main reasons ULA is developing Vulcan Centaur, the next-generation rocket that will use Blue Origin's American-made BE-4 engines. Only about two dozen Atlas launches remain before ULA fully transitions to Vulcan.

But on Monday, chief of Russia's spaceflight corporation Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, took to Twitter and again targeted the U.S. space sector.

"This ship (GOES-T) will be launched into space on an Atlas V rocket with our RD-180 propulsion engine in the first stage," Rogozin said. "But already without the supervision of our specialists. Well, let's pray for our American friends!"

What does the Russian invasion mean for ISS? Russian invasion of Ukraine complicates ISS, but partnership still stable

And:Here's where U.S. and Russia overlap on space programs and hardware

ULA CEO Tory Bruno, typically quick to respond, said his company consults with Russian experts from time to time but it's not always necessary.

"We like to be able to consult with them in the event that the engine might do something unexpected," Bruno said Monday. "But, we have been flying them for years and have developed considerable experience and expertise."

ULA has taken delivery of all the RD-180 engines it needs for the remainder of its Atlas fleet. The hardware is inspected during Atlas booster assembly in Decatur, Alabama, then again at Launch Complex 41 before liftoff.

The next launch

A few miles north of the Atlas pad, meanwhile, SpaceX teams at Kennedy Space Center are prepping a Falcon 9 rocket for the company's next mission. A batch of 47 Starlink internet satellites is set to take flight at 9:35 a.m. Thursday, March 3, from pad 39A and fly to a low-Earth orbit courtesy of the rocket's second stage.

Falcon 9's first stage, meanwhile, will target a drone ship landing and should sail into Port Canaveral before the end of the weekend for refurbishment.

Thursday's launch will mark the 40th dedicated mission for the Starlink internet constellation, which also has its own ties to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. SpaceX founder Elon Musk last week said he would send Ukraine's government as many dishes – or "user terminals" – as possible since Starlink is a space-based broadband network that can't be easily intercepted or blocked by Russian forces.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's vice prime minister, on Monday tweeted a photo of a military truck loaded with dozens of user terminals and said: "Starlink – here. Thanks, Elon Musk."

For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.

Contact Emre Kelly at aekelly@floridatoday.com or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.

Launch Thursday, March 3

  • Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9
  • Mission: 40th Starlink constellation launch
  • Launch Time: 9:35 a.m. EST
  • Launch Pad: 39A at Kennedy Space Center
  • Trajectory: Southeast
  • Landing: Drone ship
  • Weather: 90% "go"

Visit floridatoday.com/space at 8 a.m. EST Thursday, March 3, for live updates and video.