After months of system checks and orbital maneuvers, NOAA's new GOES-17 weather satellite has finally arrived at its permanent home 22,000 miles above the Earth's Western Hemisphere. The second of four satellites in an $11 billion upgrade to the United States' network of geostationary weather satellites, GOES-17 is already sending back some impressive preliminary high-resolution images of the West Coast of the continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii and much of the Pacific Ocean.

"It’s like looking at an old grainy black and white photo vs. a digital camera snapping pictures in multiple colors in real time," James Yoe, the chief administrator of the Joint Center for Satellite Data Assimilation, told Earther of the upgraded capabilities GOES-17 provides. “That detail is not just a 'gee, wow neat' factor. That enables us to identify features in meteorology that can make forecasts that affect business and citizens."

A view of the Hawaiian islands from GOES-17.
A view of the Hawaiian islands from GOES-17. (Photo: NOAA)

Like its twin GOES-16, launched in 2016 and presently operating in the GOES-East position with a view of the Americas, GOES-17 is loaded with advanced instruments that allow for the detection of hazards and weather phenomena in near-real time. These include tracking of tropical cyclones, low clouds and fog, and fire track and intensity.

That latter feature, as shown below, was recently tested over the devastating Woolsey Fire that continues to burn in the California counties of Los Angeles and Ventura.

GOES-17 also is equipped with the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), a powerful tool that can capture 500 images per second, giving forecasters unprecedented data on storm formation and intensity. In addition to greatly improving warnings for mariners and aviators at sea, the GLM also will help firefighters identify areas prone to wildfires from lightning strikes.

You can see a preliminary test of GOES-17's high-def lightning tracking, captured in May 2018, below.

Over the next several weeks, NOAA scientists will continue testing and tweaking GOES-17 from its new location. On Dec. 10, the satellite officially enters operational service as NOAA's new GOES-West eye-in-the-sky, providing the agency with unprecedented high-definition coverage of an area from Africa's western coast to New Zealand.

"It's not often that you get to build something that touches hundreds of millions of people," Tim Gasparrini, vice president for the GOES program at Lockheed Martin, told Spaceflight Now. "In the same facility, we build planetary spacecraft and those go out and do phenomenal science, but this one actually touches the lives and protects the property of hundreds of millions of people."

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.