It’s only been a few weeks since operators moved NOAA’s newest satellite into position in space and started testing its data, but a problem was immediately apparent.
The satellite’s primary weather-monitoring instrument — the Advanced Baseline Imager — was not performing to specifications for about 12 hours each day. The project scientists found it was running too hot.
“The cooling system is an integral part of the [Advanced Baseline Imager] and did not start up properly during the on-orbit checkout,” NOAA said in a statement on Wednesday. “The issue affects the infrared and near-infrared channels on the instrument. The visible channels of the ABI are not impacted.”
Space is an extremely cold place — minus-450 degrees Fahrenheit. But without a protective layer like Earth’s atmosphere, the sun’s rays are very potent. The sun can heat objects like satellites significantly. Since electronics tend to work best in cold conditions, engineers build cooling systems into satellites to counteract the heating effects of solar radiation.
The cooling system is particularly important on the Advanced Baseline Imager, which can be thought of as GOES-17’s eyes. It sees Earth during the daytime and takes extremely high-resolution photos.
The imager also works in the dark, too, because — like some animals — it can see infrared light. In fact, the imager detects 16 different wavelengths that range from visible to near-infrared to infrared, but to get precise wavelength measurements, the instrument needs to run cool.
The instrument is not running cool enough for about 12 hours each day, when the sun is shining just over Earth’s horizon into the imager’s “eyes.”
The problem affects 13 of the 16 wavelengths, the infrared and near-infrared. The visible imagery is unaffected, according to Steve Volz, the assistant administrator of NOAA Satellite, Data and Information Service.
Volz said a multiagency team has been working on this problem for about three weeks.
“This is a serious problem,” Volz said in a conference call Wednesday. “We’re treating this very seriously with the multiagency and contractor and technical team to try and understand the anomaly and find ways to start the engines, if you will, of the cooling system to function properly.”
All other satellites in its geostationary constellation — GOES-16, GOES-15 and GOES-14 which serves as a backup — are “healthy” and there’s no immediate impact from the GOES-17 malfunction, according to a statement issued by NOAA.
Aside from the obvious issue — forecasters not being able to see current weather for 12 hours per day — the problem with GOES-17 has significant forecast implications. Weather models use satellite data as one of their primary inputs. They use infrared and near-infrared data to determine wind speed and direction at all levels of the atmosphere.
Without this data from GOES-17, which launched March 1 from Cape Canaveral, forecasts won’t be as good as they could have been. Current forecast won’t be degraded, but the United States is losing a significant part of its multibillion-dollar investment in the next-gen satellite project. And the project managers aren’t sure, yet, how much of a loss it will be.
All of the other instruments are operating as planned, Volz said.
On all of NOAA’s new satellites, the Advanced Baseline Imagers were designed and built by Harris Corp., which performed “comprehensive performance tests of the instrument, including testing it to the vibration, thermal, and electromagnetic environments above what it would see during launch and on orbit,” according to Kristin Jones, a spokesperson for Harris Corp.
“We are working closely with NOAA, NASA and other industry experts to troubleshoot,” Jones said.
Tim Walsh, the system program director for the project, said that while it was disheartening to have a failure like this — especially after the success of the GOES-16 satellite — there’s still a lot of value to be drawn from a handicapped system.
“How do we maximize the mission?” Walsh said. “I think that’s what we’re focusing on right now.”
This story has been updated to include a comment from Harris Corp.
Correction: The infrared and near-infrared data is unusable for 12 hours each day.