A double dose of advanced weather satellites is poised to help save lives, protect property, and enhance the U.S. economy as the 2019 hurricane and wildfire seasons get underway. Neither could do its job without the state-of-the-art ground system managing the spacecraft and rapidly processing their massive volumes of data.

Two of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s four next-generation geostationary weather satellites are now on orbit and operational. GOES -17, which is known as GOES West, has joined its sister satellite GOES-16, operating as GOES East, on orbit after NOAA declared it officially operational in February. Together, the duo is providing critical weather and wildfire data over more than half the globe—from the west coast of Africa to New Zealand, and from near the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle.

The weather forecasting community has hailed the revolutionary capabilities of these GOES-R Series satellites ever since GOES-16 sent back its first stunning images of our planet in January 2017. Both feature the Harris-built Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) as the primary instrument on board, providing more detailed imagery than ever before.

However, the unsung hero of the series might be the GOES-R Ground System, which processed those first images and every terabyte of data thereafter.

Built by Harris, NOAA’s GOES-R Ground System commands and controls the GOES-R Series satellites, processes the data from all six instruments on board each satellite, and generates real-time weather products that are delivered to tens of thousands of users worldwide. With two satellites now on orbit, the ground system is processing approximately 3.5 terabytes of data per day, or about the amount of data in 777 high-definition videos.

“The ground system was designed to allow forecasters to fully exploit the advantages of ABI:  three times more spectral bands, four times greater spatial resolution, and five times faster refresh than previous weather imaging technology,” says Kevin Hurd, director for Harris’ Environmental Solutions ground business area. “The system is critical to realizing the full potential of the GOES-R Series satellites.”

Altogether, the ground system uses high-throughput and low-latency capabilities to process the satellites’ output, which is 60 times more data per day than the prior generation, with new images captured as frequently as every 30 seconds.

The GOES-R Ground System includes six antennas, thousands of servers, hundreds of workstations, and about 100 miles of interconnecting cables installed across three sites in Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. It uses high-performance computing, parallel processing, and failover redundancy to achieve a data processing capacity of more than 16 terabytes per day, enough to handle all four satellites in the GOES-R Series. It also delivers weather products in less than 30 seconds and space weather products in 1.8 seconds.

All this with a designed system downtime of less than four seconds per year.

Since GOES East launched in November 2016, imagery and data collected by the ABI, and processed in real time through the GOES-R Ground System, has helped in many important ways, including:

  • As Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast in August 2017, “forecasters in Corpus Christi, Texas tracked the location of the eyewall to alert emergency managers when they would have a window of opportunity to evacuate dozens of people to safety before the back end of the hurricane struck,” according to the 2018 NOAA Science Report.
     
  • In the past, National Weather Service incident meteorologists supporting fire managers “had a single low-resolution image that updated every 15 minutes – typically the image was already 20 minutes old when it arrived to the forecaster. Now, with new images evewry five minutes or less, GOES-16 frequently detects fires before they are spotted on the ground – often 10 to 15 minutes before emergency notifications to 911,” according to the NOAA/NASA GOES-R Series Program.
     
  • In March 2017, GOES-16 helped air traffic controllers at San Francisco International Airport decide when to lift a ground delay due to fog. “Forecasters were able to use the satellite’s high-resolution imagery to predict when the fog would start to erode, a decision that freed up 32 flights, prevented more than 20 hours of flight delays, and saved the airlines nearly $100,000,” according to NOAA.

The GOES-R Ground System will also manage the final two satellites in the GOES-R Series, GOES-T and GOES-U, which are scheduled to launch during the next several years. And it is scalable to handle additional satellites, missions, and orbits.

Gaining Ground on NewSpace

Building on its proven performance in mission-critical ground systems and systems integration, Harris is evolving its ground system and antenna technology into flexible and scalable ground architectures that can manage an increasing amount of government and commercial satellites expected to launch in the coming years.

For example, the U.S. Air Force Defense Innovation Unit recently awarded Harris a contract to build and demonstrate a prototype ground antenna system to improve communication with a growing number of Air Force satellites over the next decade. The prototype will use Harris’ digital beamforming, phased-array antenna technology to communicate simultaneously with multiple satellites, operating on different frequencies, from a single antenna structure.

The prototype system is the first step toward a fully operational system that can simultaneously contact hundreds of Air Force satellites in all orbits and track launch vehicles as well. The technology is reprogrammable after deployment for communication with new satellites at different frequencies.

“Our customers are preparing for a dramatic increase in both the number of satellites on orbit and the amount of data generated,” says Rob Mitrevski, vice president and general manager for Harris’ Environmental Solutions business. “As a proven systems integrator of high-performance, high-availability ground systems, we continue to invest in the multiband, multi-mission technologies necessary to navigate this new era of small satellites and big data.”

Harris is using similar phased-array antenna technology in its prototype Radio Frequency Interference Monitoring System for NOAA. The spectrum monitoring system is designed to detect cellular signals interfering with critical NOAA weather satellite data at 17 sites and is scalable to additional sites and the evolving uses of shared spectrum.

“The demand for spectrum is rising with the proliferation of smallsats, the implementation of 5G networks, and the increasing number of IoT devices,” says Mitrevski. “As spectrum sharing continues to expand, our interference monitoring technology can be programmed to detect a variety of signals interfering with satellite and terrestrial data critical to many customers and missions.”