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Boeing satellite engineer Patrick Jasanis got the space bug early.
While growing up in Orlando, Fla., his school would interrupt classes so students could watch the fiery launch of the massive Space Shuttle at nearby Kennedy Space Center.
“I was fascinated with the space program,” he said. “It was amazing to see, feel and hear the shuttle launch.”
That experience inspired Jasanis to build model rockets in his spare time and later major in aerospace engineering in college.
During his senior year at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., a deadly tornado struck the area in 1994 with little warning. So when it was announced a few years later that Boeing would be building next-generation weather satellites known as Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), “I knew that I had to be a part of that mission,” Jasanis said.
In El Segundo, Calif., a Boeing team of about 200 employees, including Jasanis, went on to design, assemble and test three next-generation GOES satellites for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Today, each spacecraft looks down from more than 22,000 miles above the Earth and remains stationary over a single spot on the planet.
The first satellite, known as GOES-13, was recently activated to monitor the hurricane season over the Atlantic. The other two, GOES-14 and GOES-15, are on orbit and ready to replace older GOES satellites that reach the end of their lives.
NASA, which oversaw the Boeing-led industry team that built the new GOES satellites, has announced that all three spacecraft are working well. NOAA operates the satellites from a control station in Suitland, Md., near Washington, D.C.
“NASA is ecstatic that we were able to deliver on our promise to provide NOAA and this nation with three geosynchronous weather satellites,” said Andre Dress, GOES deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “From the very beginning, we set the bar high and we have attained all our goals. It is something that NASA and its contractors (Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems, Lockheed Martin, ITT and United Launch Alliance) can be very proud of.”
"NASA is ecstatic that we were able to deliver on our promise to provide NOAA and this nation with three geosynchronous weather satellites."
Rick Knabb, hurricane expert at The Weather Channel, said the transition to the new satellites appears to be going seamlessly. According to him, the GOES satellites continue to be “the bread and butter of hurricane monitoring,” providing the initial location and intensity of hurricanes up to days in advance of the storms reaching the United States and other countries.
“We’re getting imagery around the clock, and that’s critical for monitoring hurricanes,” Knabb said.
Tom Renkevens, deputy chief of the satellite products and services division in NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, explained that the new GOES satellites have more powerful batteries than their predecessors, allowing them to stay on even when the sun -- their energy source -- is out of view.
“That’s a huge improvement for hurricane monitoring,” Renkevens said. “For several weeks surrounding the spring and fall equinoxes, the old satellites had to be turned off for a short time period every night when the Earth eclipsed the sun as viewed from the satellite.”
Renkevens also noted that the new satellites have improved the ability to pinpoint smaller features, such as forest fires and volcanic ash.
“With improved navigation on the new satellites, there is less jitter in the imagery, so we can see these features better,” he said.
Jasanis, who rose from the test procedure development lead to chief engineer during his 12-year stint on the program, said the three new satellites will provide better weather forecasting than earlier satellites, partly because they have “image stabilization” enhancements that will generate crisper, more accurate images and enable more precise warnings to the public.
According to Jasanis, the GOES satellites have two instruments for monitoring Earth weather: an Imager “which produces the visual images that are often seen on the TV news every night,” and a Sounder that collects atmospheric temperature data. Both instruments feed complicated meteorological computer models which are used to develop weather forecasts and track inclement weather.
Besides tracking Earth weather, the new satellites also continue several other GOES missions by monitoring space weather, including detecting explosions in the sun’s atmosphere that could release enough energy to damage the power grid on Earth or harm other operational satellites.
“If we know a large flare has occurred, we can take the necessary steps to protect key electronic systems and minimize the impact and warn the astronauts at the International Space Station,” Jasanis said.
GOES also has a search-and-rescue capability to detect distress signals from ships and airplanes.
“This program saves lives every day,” he said.
Jasanis attributed much of the GOES program’s success to the team’s unrelenting commitment to quality. The need for scrupulous attention to detail is something he learned from the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy.
“As an engineer in graduate school, I reviewed a case study about what happened leading up to the Challenger accident,” he said. “What struck me the most was how important it is to speak up when something isn't right and to work tirelessly to make sure that it gets corrected. This is something I still use in my job today.”