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New problem clouds GOES-17's debut date

The GOES-S spacecraft, now called GOES-17 as it's in orbit, features the most advanced suite of weather instruments in space, however an overheating issue is limiting performance. Now a software issue is delaying when it can go operational. (Photo: NOAA)

The newest satellite in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fleet of weather surveillance satellites faces yet another setback preventing GOES-17 from becoming operational.

Launched in March of 2018 and originally forecast to begin full operations Dec. 10 as GOES-West replacing the aging GOES-15, the new date has been pushed to "January 2019."

The new problem still relates to the Advanced Baseline Imager, or the camera, on the satellite. However instead of another hardware failure that cast doubt on the satellite's ability to help forecasters, this time the problem is in the satellite's software.

According to NOAA, "it was determined that a recent update to software that controls the ABI cryocooler system experienced a memory error."

The cryocooler keeps the instrument cool when capturing satellite imagery of the Earth.

The issue which has been ongoing since Nov. 25 caused the cooler to completely shut down. However as of Dec. 3 that issue has been rectified with a new software update causing no further damage to the expensive piece of weather equipment.

The new software fix will delay the debut of GOES-17, but it "should" be ready to go in January. That's when GOES-17 will take over for GOES-15 as GOES-West covering the western United States, the Pacific Ocean, Alaska and Hawaii with high-resolution imagery.

ORIGINAL PROBLEMS STILL EXIST

Despite GOES-17 becoming operational, it will still deal with the original overheating issue first released in May of 2018. When facing the sun, infrared and water vapor imagery from the satellite will be heavily degraded during set times of the day, especially during the "warm season" of the year.

"'This is a serious problem," said Steve Volz, head of NOAA's Satellite and Information Service, earlier this year in a press conference. "This is the premier instrument."

NOAA believes the time frame for when the satellites will be impacted sits forty days before and after the spring and fall equinox, roughly from Feb. 10-April 30 and Aug. 10-Oct 30.

Out of the sixteen total "bands," or types of images the satellite gathers, seven will suffer some effects during this period. However the up-time for those images is significantly better than originally anticipated.

Bands 8-12 and 15-16 will deal with data outages ranging from three hours to as much as six hours a day.

Overall this means there will be issues with determining cloud height and temperature, rainfall rates, instability detection, sea-surface temperatures, the detection of volcanic ash and determining wind speed as these product utilize the infrared channels which will be impacted.

Issues to GOES-R series exclusive products also exist including nighttime microphysics, daytime convection and air mass determination.

Despite this data limitation, it is believed meteorologists' needs will not be impacted.

“The GOES-17 ABI is now projected to deliver more than 97 percent of the data it was designed to provide, a remarkable recovery,” said Pam Sullivan, System Program Director for the GOES-R Series Program, in a release to the media. “We are confident the GOES constellation will continue to meet the needs of forecasters across the country.”

TANDEM OPERATIONS

Typically when a GOES platform is replaced, the old one will drift into a "graveyard orbit" where it will sit for eternity. Most recently GOES-13 was sent to the graveyard on Jan. 2 2018 once it was replaced by GOES-16 operating as GOES-East.

However due to ongoing issues with GOES-17 it will run in tandem with GOES-15 "for at least six months." This will allow forecasters to determine the performance of GOES-17 and see if it can run as an independent satellite.

FUTURE IMPLICATIONS

The critical failure of the Harris-Corporation-built cooling system for the ABI may impact the current launch timeline for GOES-T and GOES-U that were originally slated to launch as early as May 2020.

NOAA has already stated GOES-T will not launch until the cause for the failure is determined and can be prevented on future satellites.

An investigation team was formed made up of NASA scientists to determine the cause of failure for the cooler and how to mitigate it in the future. The imager (and cooler) has already been built for GOES-T and GOES-U and were identical on GOES-R and GOES-S (now GOES-16 and GOES-17). NOAA was "exploring design modifications" for the not-yet launched imagers. GOES-16, sitting 23,000 miles overhead, will hopefully not suffer a similar fate.

Despite these setbacks, NOAA leaders still believe GOES-17 will work very well for meteorologists significantly improving forecast capabilities, and with most products remaining online 24 hours a day, no impact to forecasters' abilities should be felt.

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