Science

Weather satellite recovers for storm season

Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites - NOAA

A geostationary weather satellite temporarily shut down by a micrometeoroid impact on May 22 returned to normal operations June 10, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The satellite, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-13 (also called GOES East), was jolted by a micrometeoroid that fortunately did not damage any of its instruments, engineers said, and its return to duty means NOAA again has a full cadre of three geostationary satellites transmitting vital data to weather forecasters on ground.

"Once again, NOAA has three, healthy geostationary satellites ready and able to track hurricanes, severe storms, floods and other dangerous weather conditions," said Mary Kicza, assistant administrator for NOAA's Satellite and Information Service.

On May 22, GOES-13 stopped producing imaging and sounding data, forcing NOAA to initially configure GOES-15 (GOES-West) to cover more of the eastern United States while the agency brought backup satellite GOES-14 online.

The satellites orbit the Earth 22,300 miles above the equator and provide imaging data particularly important to short-term weather forecasts, especially severe weather that causes tornadoes, blizzards and hurricanes.

NOAA's policy is to operate two GOES spacecraft – one in the East and one in the West – with an additional GOES satellite orbiting in "orbital storage mode" in case one of the primary satellites stops working. This is the second time in less than a year that trouble with GOES-13 has forced NOAA to activate backup GOES-14. "Our established back-up plan worked," Kicza said. "NOAA forecasters continued receiving valuable satellite images and data necessary to issue life-saving warnings for tornadoes and floods."

Yet if issues continue – or problems permanently disable one of the spacecraft – NOAA's geostationary fleet gets thin, which is why NOAA has a $10.9 billion program in place to replace them called GOES-R. That plan, however, has been scrutinized by several sources, including the Commerce Department Office of Inspector General in April.

The audit said NOAA's GOES-R program, which intends to launch the first of four new geostationary satellites in October 2015, faces potential launch delays, cost increases and budget shortfalls. While NOAA accepted five of the OIG's seven recommendations, the audit clearly caused internal friction -- the IG's report discussed a "ban" NOAA imposed on OIG officials from Program Management Council meetings.

According to a June memo from OIG to NOAA, OIG plans another audit of the GOES-R program this year.

"The objective of our audit is to assess the adequacy of GOES-R development activities, as the program completes the ground system fabrication of flight instruments and the spacecraft, and transitions to system integration and test, per NOAA and NASA standards," the memo states. "We will also monitor NOAA's progress in developing and vetting with stakeholders a comprehensive set of trade-off approaches to mitigate launch delays and its oversight of GOES-R systems engineering."

NOAA also operates a fleet of polar-orbiting satellites that orbit closer to the Earth and aid in long-term weather forecasting, producing storm warnings and providing vital data to weather prediction models. It intends to replace those satellites, but the General Accountability Office and other organizations inside and outside government believe a gap in satellite data is inevitable.

In its annual "High-Risk List," GAO reported that NOAA's $13 billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), which aims to have its first satellite operational by 2017, could leave the agency without data from polar-orbiting satellites anywhere from 17 to 54 months depending on how long the current model outlives its expected life-cycle.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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