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I have to admit I love to play on the NOAA website (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). This is likely due to my fascination with weather related things and the fact that they are THE weather people. I love looking at satellite images, or checking hurricane reports.  They have an amazingly user-friendly site.

Typically when you look at these satellite images, you have a couple different options. You can look at water vapor, infra-red, different areas of the country, visible real-time photos (great when looking at storms). But whichever view you look at, there is a satellite name with it; usually GOES West, GOES East, or Meterosat-9.

GOES stands for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. There are several of these in orbit and as the name implies, they are stationary over a particular area and that’s their region to monitor. I remember there was even a GOES reference at the beginning of the movie Twister, to show how far weather imagery had advanced from the opening sequence. Most of us Earth-bound mortals don’t care that such satellites exist, but I have enjoyed their views and am thankful for their real-time streams of information that show meteorologists (and weather buffs like myself) what’s coming and going in the air around us.

Having said that, I was playing on the NOAA site today when I found a newsletter update that GOES-3 had reached the end of its lifespan. Launched in June of 1978, this satellite has had quite the career.  In May of 1980 it managed to capture the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, which looks very different when seen from orbit. The video shows cloud cover and then poof! A massive hole appears from the force of the erupting debris, then the darker ash clouds are visible.   After 10 years GOES-3 lost its imaging ability, but was repurposed as a communication satellite for Pan-Pacific Education and Communications Experiments out of Hawaii. It was part of a fundamental link that aided the Pacific area in education, healthcare and even disaster management.   Having 2 lives it pretty good, but GOES-3 lived up to its name and had a 3rd. In 1995 it was adopted by the National Science Foundation to provide communications for the Antarctic research facility.


Artist rendering of GOES-3

Finally, after 38 years, 3 important jobs, and countless orbits, GOES-3 was decommissioned this past June, which oddly saddens me. Don’t ask why, I guess it’s just like losing a favorite old car, or watching a familiar landmark get torn down. I know it hasn’t actually showed anyone the weather in 20 years, but that’s not the point. It served its purpose and then found new ones – tasks it was uniquely suited for and performed well.

Currently GOES-3 stands as the oldest continually operating spacecraft in history at 38 years and 13 days. So very much has changed in our world while it whirled silently around over our heads.  I tip my hat to those men and women who kept this satellite in orbit, operating and employed for such a lifespan.


May we all find such purpose and longevity.