A Delta II rocket blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base early Saturday, launching a new era for collecting environmental data with an aim toward improving accuracy and timeliness for weather forecasts.
The 12-story-tall rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, climbed away from Space Launch Complex-2 at 1:47 a.m. after other attempts were foiled for various reasons.
The booster carried the first in a series of four satellites for the Joint Polar Satellite System, JPSS-1, built by Ball Aerospace and launched through a collaboration between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Spacecraft separation occurred approximately an hour after liftoff, sparking applause from ground crew members who were able to watch the critical milestone due to an on-board camera. A short time later, five CubeSats that hitched a ride on the mission also deployed successfully.
“Things went absolutely perfect today,” said Omar Baez, NASA launch manager.
JPSS-1, to be renamed NOAA-20, will undergo a three-month checkout period in space before becoming operational some 512 miles above Earth, officials said.
Officials have said the mission costs, including launch and satellite, add up to $1.6 billion.
The new satellite and its five advanced instruments will be welcome tools for a variety of purposes, including spotting fires and volcanic eruptions, assessing floods and more.
“With such an active and extremely dangerous hurricane season we’ve recently encountered and the destructive wildfires we’ve seen around the planet, and particularly in California in the last year, JPSS-1 is arriving at just the right time,” said Steve Volz, director of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service.
JPSS-1 will collect assorted data such as atmospheric observations of temperatures and water vapor information expected to help improve weather forecasts out to seven days, according to Mitch Goldberg, chief JPSS program scientist for NOAA.
Polar-orbiting weather satellites have headed to space from Vandenberg for decades, but JPSS-1 features the most advanced technology NOAA has ever flown.
“JPSS provides global atmospheric temperature and water vapor (data) to forecast models twice as fast than our old generation of satellites with six times the vertical resolution,” Goldberg said, adding the increased resolution will lead to forecast models with better data.
One of JPSS-1’s instruments, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS, has ties to Santa Barbara County and Raytheon’s operations in Goleta. It will help spot information about fires, smoke, floods, sea ice, oil spills and more.
Another instrument, the Harris-built Cross-track Infrared Sounder, or CrIS, will have 2,200 measurements compared to 19 channels for the older system.
Global observations are critical because a small disturbance spotted in one area can hint of a hurricane a few days later.
Joe Pica, Office of Observations director for NOAA’s National Weather Service, said those who work at the agency were eagerly awaiting the new satellite.
During the recent hurricane season, forecasts helped emergency officials to prepare days in advance of storm arrivals, leading to fewer deaths than seen during previous events.
“This well-coordinated preparedness really depends on us being able to provide a sound confident forecast to those core partners,” Pica said.
“Such forecasts are impossible without quality robust global data that’s provided from polar satellites, and JPSS-1 is joining that network of satellites that provides these observations that are the backbone of forecast process.”
Cal Fire Division Chief Jana Luis from the Predictive Services Division said weather forecasts helped firefighters prepare days head for the historical weather event that led to blazes throughout California, starting Oct. 8.
“This was not just a small event in a small area of California,” she said. “It was most of Northern California and a good portion of Southern California with a historical wind event.”
Once a fire sparks, the incident meteorologist and fire behavior specialists use satellite data to pinpoint potential growth areas and the intensity.
“So we’re constantly getting this accurate data, using this data and making very important decisions for our department as well as the public,” Luis said.
Cal Fire also uses weather data to issue fire prevention messages to the public.
“With this satellite, we look forward to the improved data and the higher resolution data so we can feed it into our models, determine our fire danger and also our fire intensity once the incident does happen,” Luis said.
The spacecraft, which continues decades of collecting weather data from polar-orbiting satellites, is designed to operate for seven years, but officials hope it lasts longer.
The CubeSats, under NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program, were ejected from the Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployers, designed and manufactured at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
JPSS-2, which also will launch from Vandenberg, is scheduled to head to space in 2021.
This was the second to last Delta II rocket, with the final launch of the workhorse booster scheduled for next September from Vandenberg.
Also from Vandenberg, a Delta IV rocket launch of a National Reconnaissance Office payload is planned for mid-December.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.