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GOES-R launch on Atlas 5
An Atlas 5 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending the GOES-R weather satellite into space. (United Launch Alliance Photo)

NASA and its space partners juggled an arrival and a departure today: First, three new crew members docked with the International Space Station to begin a months-long stay in orbit. Then the next-generation GOES-R satellite went into space for a 20-year weather-monitoring mission.

One operation went by the book. The other almost didn’t happen.

The crew’s arrival aboard a Russian Soyuz craft brings the space station’s staffing back to its full strength of six spacefliers. The new arrivals include NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who already has served two tours of duty aboard the station and is due to break the U.S. record for cumulative time in space during her current flight.

At the age of 56, Whitson is the oldest woman to fly in space.

She and her crewmates on the Soyuz, Russia’s Oleg Novitskiy and France’s Thomas Pesquet, were launched into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by a Russian rocket on Thursday. They joined NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Russia’s Sergei Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko, who have been living aboard the station for less than a month.

NASA spokesman Rob Navias said today’s docking made for a “textbook two-day rendezvous.”

The GOES-R countdown didn’t go as smoothly: Minutes before the appointed time for liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, mission managers reported an anomaly with one of the components on the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

It took until the end of today’s launch window – 3:42 p.m. PT (6:42 p.m. ET) – to resolve the technical issue as well as a problem relating to range clearance for the launch.

The Atlas 5 then ascended into Florida’s night sky on a pillar of flame.

GOES-R is destined to join the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s constellation of weather satellites. Once it goes operational in geostationary orbit, 22,300 miles up, the bus-sized satellite will be renamed GOES-16.

The satellite is the first of its kind to go into orbit: GOES-R’s instruments are designed to provide images with four times the spatial resolution of previously launched weather satellites. It will provide updates every 30 seconds, compared with the current standard of five minutes.

GOES-R’s Geostationary Lightning Mapper will be the first instrument capable of mapping lightning strikes as well as in-cloud discharges from geostationary orbit.

“It’s like back in the day when we went from black-and-white television to color,” NBC weather anchor Al Roker said today during NASA’s webcast. “Well, this is going to be like going from black-and-white to high resolution.”

Three more satellites like GOES-R are to be launched in the years to come, providing unprecedented data about weather systems sweeping over the Americas for the next 20 years.

Roker noted that the data could provide as much as 20 minutes’ extra warning about the precise paths of hurricanes and other potentially threatening storms.

“We’re talking about lives being saved,” he said.

Ironically, the GOES-R launch had been scheduled for earlier this month but was postponed when Hurricane Matthew passed close to Cape Canaveral, damaging buildings in the area.

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