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GOES-3: The Oldest Operating Satellite takes its Curtain Call

July 19, 2016

With an operational life spanning five different decades and six different U.S. presidents, GOES-3 has seen it all. From weather forecasting to communicating with the South Pole, GOES-3 has cemented its place in the history books as “One of the Oldest Continuously Operating Spacecraft in History”.


Image of GOES-3 Satellite

The GOES-3 satellite made history on June 16, 1978, when it became NOAA’s third Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) placed in orbit. In 2016, after 38 years and a second life as a communications satellite, GOES-3, one of the oldest continuously operating satellites in orbit, made history again when it reached the end of its life and completed the decommissioning process on June 29.

Image of GOES-C
GOES-C (known as GOES-3 once operational) awaits launch aboard Delta Launch Vehicle 142. It was placed in geostationary orbit at 135 degrees west longitude. Credit: NASA

Launched into space aboard a Delta 2914 carrier rocket, the satellite used a Visible/Infrared Spin Scan Radiometer (VISSR) to provide day and night observations of cloud and surface temperatures, cloud heights, and wind fields. Although GOES-3 was spin-stabilized, only viewing Earth less than 10 percent of the time and providing data in only two dimensions, the satellite provided forecasters with some of their first near real-time looks at atmospheric conditions from a fixed location.

Serving in the “GOES-West” position until the late 80s, GOES-3 monitored and measured Earth’s weather systems for a decade. The satellite’s most famous imagery was captured on May 18, 1980, when the Mount St. Helens volcano erupted, spewing ash over Washington State. NOAA relied on data and imagery from GOES-3 to track the dispersion of ash clouds from the eruption to warn pilots flying in the area of the potentially deadly hazard.

In 1988, 10 years after launch, GOES-3 lost its operational imaging capabilities. Its long career as an operational weather satellite had come to an honorable end, but GOES-3 did not go gently into that goodnight.

Its storied career had just begun.

Although its imager could no longer capture useful weather observations, GOES-3 could still communicate with ground systems on Earth. The satellite’s ability to send and receive data from geostationary orbit grabbed the attention of the Pan-Pacific Education and Communications Experiments by Satellite Program, or PEACESAT.

Established in 1971 and managed by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, PEACESAT is dedicated to establishing reliable internet and telecommunications access in the Pacific Islands and bridging the digital divide. By repositioning GOES-3 and enhancing communications systems in the region, PEACESAT was able to provide healthcare services, educational programs, disaster management and response aid, and many other public services.

GOES-3 served as a communications lifeline to the Pacific from 1988 through the early 1990s. In 1995, the satellite would again change hands and provide a new critical communications link—this time, for the South Pole.

The satellite’s inclination station-keeping maneuvers had been eliminated for quite some time due to the low fuel remaining, knocking out its ability to maintain a precise orbital plane. The inclination of GOES-3’s orbital plane, in respect to Earth’s equator, was drifting higher and higher. This unique, high- inclination orbit meant that GOES-3 could make a direct connection between Earth’s polar caps and the United States for 6.5 hours a day—a rare capability that caught the eye of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Image of Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station
The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station during the 2007–08 summer season. In the foreground is the ceremonial South Pole and the flags for the original 12 signatory nations to Antarctic Treaty. Credit: NSF

The NSF is the lead government agency responsible for implementing Artic research and operates the United States Antarctic Program. Through a series of agreements, NOAA permanently transferred the satellite from PEACESAT to the NSF to be used for direct digital communications between the continental U.S. and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Image of a satellite dish
GOES-3 communications is done using the 9-meter South Pole Marisat-GOES Terminal (SPMGT). This platform also has the smaller GOES-3 backup antenna. Credit: NSF

In this remote Antarctic region telecommunications satellites provide the sole means of communicating with the outside world. Operated by the University of Miami’s Richmond Satellite Operations Center (RSOC), GOES-3 (in conjunction with a select few other satellites) provided the station with tele-science, tele-medicine, high-speed scientific data transfer, and real-time peer-to-peer voice and data communications.With an operational life spanning five different decades and six different U.S. presidents, GOES-3 has seen it all. When launched in 1978, the TV show ESPN had yet to go live on air (it hit the airwaves a year later in 1979), ABC’s 20/20 and the movies Grease and Animal House had all premiered days earlier, and sports stars LeBron James, Alexander Ovechkin, and Aaron Rodgers weren’t even born yet.

Since then, GOES-3 has provided operational data and information vital for weather forecasting across the entire United States and served as a critical communications life line to both the Pacific Islands and the distant South Pole.

After a long career, GOES-3’s curtain call began on June 15, 2016. Following 14 days and 20 orbital adjustment maneuvers, the satellite was carefully placed into a “graveyard” orbit, safely removed from operating geostationary satellites. The final decommissioning phase ending on June 29, 2016, cementing GOES-3 in the history books as the “One of the Oldest Continuously Operating Spacecraft in History” with a service life of 38 years and 13 days.