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NOAA Revives Weather Satellite After Lengthy Outage

Technicians with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Boeing, and ITT successfully revived one of the country's main weather observing satellites, which had malfunctioned in September. The satellite, known as "GOES-13," is used for keeping tabs on weather across the East Coast and Atlantic Ocean.

The satellite, which was taken offline on September 23, had experienceed increasing vibrations, or “noise,” in its sounder and imaging instruments. In a press release, NOAA said technicians had traced the problem to "vibration from aging lubricant in the sounder instrument," and said it will resume full operations on Thursday.

Earth as captured by one of the geostationary weather satellites on October 17.
Credit: NOAA.

The outage of GOES-13 — so named because the satellite stays in a fixed orbit above the equator — does not mean that forecasters lost all satellite imagery, which is essential for making accurate weather predictions. Instead, NOAA maneuvered other satellites into position to provide coverage during the outage.

“The engineers have worked hard to understand and correct the problem, and now data from both the imager and sounder will flow shortly to our key user, NOAA’s National Weather Service,” said Mary Kicza, assistant administrator of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service. “With severe weather always a threat, NOAA had back-up resources and contingency plans already established, so the critical flow of satellite data was uninterrupted.”

NOAA operates two GOES spacecraft that orbit at a distance of 22,300 miles above the equator, and another GOES spacecraft orbits in what is known as "orbital storage mode" in case any trouble arises. NOAA also operates the polar operational environmental satellite program satellites, which fly 540 miles above Earth’s surface, circling near the North and South Poles.

The GOES-13 incident illustrates the importance of having backup weather satellites at the ready in case of mechanical trouble. Delays and cost overruns in the polar orbiting satellite program mean that there won't be such redundancy starting in about 2017, lasting for at least a year, NOAA has said.

Polar-orbiting satellites continuously scan the planet from north to south, and instruments aboard these satellites are used for many applications in addition to weather forecasting, such as monitoring volcanic eruptions, gathering sea surface temperature data, and locating emergency beacons from aviators or mariners in distress.

NOAA has warned that, starting in 2017, there will be at least a year-long gap between the newest polar orbiting satellite’s design lifetime and the scheduled launch date of its replacement.

That would mean the U.S. could become reliant on just one polar-orbiting satellite, rather than the two that have long been in service. NOAA ran up billions in cost overruns for the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, and delays and a lack of funding from Congress have put that program, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), years behind schedule.

NOAA has warned that such a data gap could significantly erode the agency’s ability to provide advanced notice of significant weather events, as well as European forecasting authorities, who rely on satellite data from the U.S. to help generate their forecasts.

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