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NOAA: Issues with new weather satellite 'disappointing' but confident it'll meet needs

GOES-S Pre-Encapsulation inside Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville Florida. (NASA Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Scientists with NOAA say they've got a good plan in place to deal with issues that cropped up on the new GOES-17 weather satellite that launched earlier this year.

GOES-17 is the second of four planned new advanced weather satellites giving weather forecasters a treasure trove of new data at higher resolutions and more frequent updates.

GOES-16 successfully launched in 2017 and went operational last fall over the East Coast and has already paid great dividends, among other things, helping save lives during Hurricane Harvey. GOES-17 is tasked to cover the West Coast.

But as officials were testing the new satellite a few months ago, they discovered a problem with a cooling unit that is affecting some of the sensors -- mainly those that detect infrared heat on the planet. Infrared satellite imagery is a staple for meteorologists as it allows us to not only see clouds day or night, but determine their height based on their temperature. Colder clouds mean they're higher in the atmosphere which can be an indicator of storm strength.

But with the cooling malfunction, it can't run full time, meaning there are periods when the sensor is running hot, which in turn is messing with its calibration to correctly measure the thermal signatures on Earth. It would be like trying to measure the temperature outside your home, but you've put the thermometer near the dryer vent. All the other sensors, such as the visible light sensors (which, simply put, takes pictures of the atmosphere) and the lightning sensors are unaffected.

A team of scientists are working hard to determine the exact extent of the issue and how to mitigate its effects, such as tweaking the satellite's orientation to minimize sun exposure to the cooling unit.

What they've found is that during the "cool" parts of the satellite year -- near the summer and winter solstice when the satellite orientation keeps the heat sensor in the shade -- NOAA can run 13 of the 16 sensors 24/7 with the other three infrared sensors for 20 hours a day or more, according to Pam Sullivan, Director of NOAA GOES-R (16) System Program.

In the "warmer" parts of the satellite year -- around the spring and fall equinox when the cooling unit is getting more direct sunlight-- they think they will be able to run 10 sensors full time, and the other 6 will run for "most" of the day, depending on their type of sensor and wavelength used. Sullivan said they'll have a better handle on the schedule once they get through the September warm season.

"There is no doubt the problems we are experiencing with the cooling system are disappointing and not what we expected of GOES-17 when we launched, but we are committed to getting this right," said Dr. Steve Volz, director, NOAA's Satellite and Information Service. "We will figure out what happened on the -17 and so that it doesn't occur again on our other GOES satellites."

Officials also stress that we have plenty of other weather satellites up there to pick up the slack. For one, our current "old" satellite -- GOES-15 -- is still there and running as usual, and has enough fuel to last until 2024 or 2025. GOES-16 over the East Coast still provides some coverage to the west coast, and NOAA also has a partnership with the Japanese Meteorological Agency to use their Himawari satellites that also provide coverage over the Pacific Ocean and West Coast, plus we have polar orbiting satellites. And to top it off, we still have the GOES-14 hanging around up there as a spare.

And even with the degraded infrared sensor capability, the new GOES-17's other sensors provide a huge leap forward over what we have now with the current satellite with 4 times the resolution, 5 times the update rate and the cool new lightning mapper. The satellite is still on track to be declared operational by this fall.

"While we aren't going to get the full GOES-17 functionality, we're going to receive more and better data than we currently have and we are confident that we will meet the operational needs for the (National) Weather Service," Sullivan said.

GOES-16 Satellite May Have Issues Too...

Sullivan noted that during the examination of the data from GOES-17, they've discovered the cooling until on GOES-16 is also showing some minor signs of degraded performance, but so far it hasn't been enough to affect operations.

However, NOAA will not launch the next two weather satellites in the hopper until they are confident they have solved the issue. The third satellite in the series is still tentatively set for launch in 2020.

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