USA TODAY - Over a two-year period through 2013, a Harris Corp. facility in Melbourne became one of Brevard County’s biggest power consumers.
In a lab there, engineers plugged in several hundred racks holding more than 2,000 computer servers to test equipment essential to the success of a satellite mission launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:42 p.m. ET Saturday.
The satellite called GOES-R is expected to revolutionize the nation’s weather forecasting capabilities, dramatically improving the quality and speed of images taken from more than 22,000 miles above the planet.
Harris provided the satellite’s key camera instrument, but also led the design and delivery of ground systems that will control the spacecraft, make sense of the data it collects and distribute that information to forecasters.
“How do you make sure that once you have all of this amazing imagery, you can put it to use?” said Romy Olaisen, vice president of Enterprise Ground Solutions at Harris in Melbourne, explaining the company’s challenge.
The satellite launching after sunset Saturday on a powerful United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is the first in a series of four representing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s biggest upgrade in decades to geostationary satellites flying high over the equator.
The improvement to the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite program, or GOES, will cost $11 billion, including the four satellites, new ground system and operations through 2036.
The GOES series will collect three times more information with four times better resolution than existing spacecraft, and do so five times faster.
A scan of the entire Western Hemisphere, for example, will take five minutes instead of 26 minutes. Simultaneously, the satellite can scan individual major storms every 30 seconds.
That data has to get to forecasters fast.
“Within 30 seconds, we’re putting that data in the hands of the National Weather Service,” said Olaisen, a Vero Beach resident.
Harris began studying how to do that in 2003, and in 2009 won a 10-year ground segment contract, working with several partners, that is now valued at more than $1 billion.
The work included upgrading four antennas stations in Maryland and building six new stations located in Virginia and at a backup site in West Virginia.
Each new antenna station weighs 85 tons and holds a dish stretching 54 feet across, and is designed to work through a Category 2 hurricane.
“It’s a beast,” said Oliasen. “It’s important because that is the link, your tether between the spacecraft and your ground system, so you have to have that interface.”
From there, computers and software will convert the satellite images into products forecasters can use to see and analyze wind speeds, humidity, cloud cover and ozone levels, among other variables.
The ground system daily will distribute huge volumes of data, equivalent to 210 high-definition movies or 2.5 million emails.
“You can never get behind, or the data will just stack up,” said Greg Mandt, the GOES-R system program director at NOAA.
After being tested in Melbourne, the servers, routers and other gear were shipped to the ground system’s three operating sites.
Though the GOES-R satellite won’t officially enter service for about a year, the ground network will get to work soon after the mission reaches orbit.
“The difference it’s going to make, I think that’s what has us all just very excited and feeling very proud,” said Olaisen. “We’re so looking forward to bringing those better predictions and information that’s going to transform weather forecasting.”
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