The next NOAA weather satellite is launching just in time

SAN FRANCISCO – The launch of the next U.S. weather satellite comes just in time to ensure the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has two healthy spacecraft making observations from polar orbit.

NOAA is preparing to launch the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 on November 1 from Vandenberg Space Base in California. The satellite, built and integrated by Northrop Grumman, will travel into low Earth orbit on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 401 rocket.

Although the new satellite is called JPSS-2, it is the third satellite in the JPSS constellation. The first was the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership satellite launched in October 2011. The Suomi NPP was designed as a precursor to the joint NASA, NOAA, Department of Defense National Polar Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). Since NPOESS was cancelled, NPP was commissioned.

After nearly 11 years, the Suomi NPP is running out of fuel. It was launched with enough propellant to maintain its orbit for at least 10.5 years plus enough extra fuel to launch over the Pacific Ocean.

“We’re getting to the end of this life,” said Tim Walsh, NOAA JPSS program manager, during an Oct. 4 press briefing. “We have to think of innovative ways to keep it on its desired trajectory.”

Because the Suomi NPP instruments continue to perform well, NOAA is considering options to extend its life, such as allowing the satellite to drift into orbit.

First, however, the agency wants to make sure JPSS-2 and its instruments built by Ball Aerospace, L3Harris Technologies, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Technologies are working well. The JPSS-2 satellite, which will be renamed NOAA-21 in orbit, will gather observations alongside NOAA-20, which was known before it entered orbit as JPSS-1.

The benefit of having two satellites making observations in low Earth orbit was demonstrated during Hurricane Ian.

The NOAA 20 images showed two sides of the Category 4 Atlantic hurricane. In contrast, the Suomi NPP captured an image “right in the center of the storm,” said Jordan Gerth, a meteorologist with NOAA’s National Weather Service. “It’s critical for our meteorologists to have the best picture of the various storm systems.”

NASA has completed environmental testing of the JPSS-2 satellite and is integrating it with LOFTID, the low-Earth orbit flight test of an inflatable decelerator. LOFTID flies as a secondary payload on the JPSS-2 launch to demonstrate re-entry technology.

“I’m pleased to report that we have an observatory that is well tested and ready to be integrated atop the launch vehicle,” said André Dress, JPSS flight director at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

After launch, NASA will oversee a 90-day commissioning phase before handing over satellite operations to NOAA.

Once operational, NOAA-21 will circle the globe every 90 minutes, providing data for numerical weather models, observing storms, detecting wildfires and other environmental hazards, monitoring sea surface temperatures, detecting harmful algae and measurement of atmospheric ozone. The observations come from Ball Aerospace’s Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite, the L3Harris Cross-track Infrared Sounder, Northrop Grumman’s Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder, and Raytheon’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite.

JPSS-2 is equipped with many of the same instruments as NOAA-20. However, JPSS-2 does not include NASA’s clouds and the Earth’s energy radiative system to provide information about the Earth’s energy cycle.

JPSS also carries a different ozone mapping instrument than NOAA-20. The ozone mapping instrument on JPSS-2 is similar to that on the Suomi nuclear power plant.

The JPSS-2 launch will be the last United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 flight from the West Coast. After liftoff, ULA will begin converting the Vandenberg-3 Space Launch Complex for the Vulcan Centaur rocket.

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