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Farewell to GOES-13: The History of NOAA’s Former GOES East Satellite

January 10, 2018

For more than seven years, NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite has been actively monitoring the skies over the Western Hemisphere, serving as a critical source of information during major U.S. weather events, from crippling snowstorms to powerful hurricanes. Here’s a look back at the satellite’s unique history and its most memorable imagery.

Image of the earth and weather
GOES-13 views Hurricane Gonzalo in the Caribbean and active weather across the western and central North Atlantic on October 14, 2014.

When GOES-13 was first launched aboard a Boeing Delta-IV rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in May 2006, the spacecraft joined a new generation of satellites known as the GOES-N,O,P series. These satellites were designed with a longer lifespan than their predecessors, and would carry enough fuel to operate for nearly 14 years.With faster data processing, GOES-13 could pinpoint the location of severe storms and other weather phenomena with increased accuracy, allowing forecasters to provide timelier warnings to the public. The satellite’s imager and sounder sensors could take more precise vertical measurements of the Earth’s atmosphere, which enabled the satellite to track major weather events such as hurricanes and tropical cyclones in near-real time.

A Bumpy Road

Despite its technological prowess, GOES-13 experienced a number of setbacks throughout its service life (could it be the number 13 associated with its name?).Six months after GOES-13 was launched, an intense solar flare badly damaged the satellite’s solar X-ray imager. Normally, this instrument is designed to detect solar flares, but in this case, the sun’s magnetic energy was too powerful for GOES-13 to withstand.Then, in September 2012, the satellite suddenly started sending back blurry images with a lot of “noise.” To fix the problem, NOAA had to place GOES-13 in standby mode for nearly a month. In the meantime, NOAA began moving a spare satellite, GOES-14, to GOES-13’s orbital position.NOAA engineers determined that GOES-13’s blurry images were caused by aging lubricant in the satellite’s sounder system. The buildup was preventing the filter wheel from spinning properly, causing the images to appear grainy. After weeks of extensive testing, the satellite mission operations team successfully put GOES-13 back into service in mid-October 2012.The fix came just in time. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast with damaging winds and historic coastal flooding. Of course, NOAA always has backup plans in case one of its satellites experiences technical difficulties. As Hurricane Sandy approached the U.S., GOES-14 was providing a second set of eyes on the storm, monitoring it from 22,300 miles above Earth, right alongside GOES-13.

Image of a hurricane
GOES-13 view of Hurricane Sandy intensifying the Caribbean Sea before the storm tracked up the U.S. East Coast in October 2012.

Despite these and other challenges, GOES-13 has provided valuable information about our weather throughout its years in service. Moreover, the satellite will continue to remain available as a backup source if another one of NOAA’s operational satellites experiences technical problems.

GOES-13’s Retirement

After more than seven years as NOAA’s official GOES East satellite, GOES-13 retired on January 8, 2018. The satellite passed on its duties to its younger successor, GOES-16, when that satellite became fully operational as the new GOES East satellite on December 18, 2017.For the past three weeks, the satellite duo have practically been neighbors in the sky - with GOES-16 watching over Earth at 75.2 degrees west longitude and its older cousin, GOES-13, at 75.0 degrees west.On January 8, GOES-13 said goodbye to its next-door neighbor, GOES-16, and began a three-week journey to its on-orbit storage location, where it will be kept unless it is needed as a backup satellite.In a process known as “drift,” GOES-13 began moving to its new storage location, at 60 degrees west longitude (for reference, that’s about the longitude of Nova Scotia, Canada). For a geosynchronous satellite to change its orbital position over the Earth, NOAA’s operations team must maneuver the satellite using a series of commands uploaded to the spacecraft’s memory. Similar to GOES-16’s own drift process in early December 2017, the operations team first had to lower GOES-13 slightly - by about 60 miles - to get it moving into its new orbit.

What Happens Next?

It will take about three weeks for GOES-13 to reach its final storage location at 60 degrees west. Since the drift process began on January 8, GOES-13 no longer transmits any data. Think of the satellite taking its final journey into the sunset, figuratively speaking, of course.As a tribute to GOES-13, here’s a sample of GOES-13’s most memorable images:

Image of Coastal Storm
GOES-13 view of a strong coastal storm off the coast of New England on March 26, 2014.
Image of a storm
GOES-13 captures severe storms erupting in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas on May 18, 2017.
Image of a hurricane
GOES-13 sees Hurricane Patricia in the Eastern Pacific approach southern Mexico on October 23, 2015. With sustained winds of 215 mph, the storm was among the strongest ever recorded on Earth.
Image of a tornado
This visible image from GOES-13 shows a tornado outbreak in the central U.S. May 17, 2017