NewsMay 24, 2013

Weather Satellite Outage Points to Larger Problems

Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

For the second time in less than a year, a key weather satellite is ailing, forcing a spare satellite into service, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The satellite malfunction comes shortly before the kickoff of the 2013 Atlantic Hurricane Season, which NOAA expects to be an active one. And while the offline satellite will not impact weather forecasts now that the backup satellite is in place, it leaves weather forecasters without a fallback in the event that the backup satellite also experiences technical difficulties.

Infrared satellite image of North America from NOAA's GOES satellites on May 24, 2013.


In addition, experts say, it calls attention to the erosion of America’s weather and climate observing infrastructure due to budget difficulties and poor management.

The sick satellite, which engineers have been working to fix since Tuesday, is responsible for observing weather systems across the eastern U.S. and the Atlantic Ocean, and is known as GOES-13, or “GOES East.” It is a geostationary satellite, which means that it stays in a fixed orbit at an altitude of about 22,300 miles above the equator, allowing it to keep a constant vigil over the Earth, taking many of the satellite images that are shown on TV weather broadcasts. The satellite data is also fed into computer models used for predicting the weather and observing the climate system, meaning that any gaps in satellite data could diminish forecast accuracy.

This is the second time that GOES-13 has malfunctioned since September 2012. The GOES-13 satellite was launched in 2006 but not put into service until 2010.

Thomas Renkevens, deputy division chief with NOAA's satellite products and services division, told Climate Central that he expects GOES-13 to be restored to active service, even though engineers have not yet pinpointed the cause of the outage.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to recover it,” Renkevens said in an interview. “The engineers are smart, and it doesn’t sound like anything catastrophic happened. Everyone is working hard toward a resolution.”

More importantly, Renkevens said, the data from the backup satellite, known as “GOES-14,”  ensures that forecasters will have access to imagery of the East Coast and Atlantic at the start of hurricane season.

“We’re not blind in the Atlantic, so we shouldn’t have to worry about anything sneaking up on us that would go unobserved,” he said. It has been about 20 years since the U.S. was last down to one GOES satellite, he said, and should the backup satellite also encounter technical difficulties, NOAA would rely more on their international partners for weather data.

NOAA’s policy has been to keep two GOES satellites in orbit at all times, along with one backup. However, the first satellite in the next-generation as GOES spacecraft won’t be launched until the fall of 2015. Across-the-board budget cuts to federal programs, known as the sequester, may cause the launch date of the first GOES-R satellite to slip, which could result in a period without any redundancy in deployed satellites, as the current satellites begin exceed their design lifetime.

NASA image showing the visible images acquired by the three GOES satellites on Sept. 15, 2012 (top row), and the field of view of each satellite (bottom row).
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.


On Feb. 14, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) included “mitigating gaps in satellite data” on its annual list of the top 30 challenges facing the federal government, also known as its “high-risk list.”

“Any further delays in the GOES-R program would likely increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage,” the GAO report said. The GAO also included managing climate change risks on the same high-risk list.

Marshall Shepherd, the director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia and the president of the American Meteorological Society, said the spare satellite should avoid any significant data interruptions — for now.

“I think immediately we are OK because GOES-14 is in place as the 'spare tire' but what if our 'spare' goes out?” Shepherd said in an email to Climate Central. “Well, then we probably have to share the European satellite. We have done this before. However, it is not optimal and is a band-aid.

“More importantly, there is talk . . . that [the] sequester could delay the GOES-R (the new 'tires') series. This points to the increasing need to elevate our weather infrastructure to the level of public safety and national security infrastructure. U.S. lives, property and the economy depends on such diligence,” Shepherd said.

Prior to the sequester going into effect in March, NOAA officials warned Congress that the cuts would imperil the timeline of the GOES program. For example, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank told the House Appropriations Committee in early February: “This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings.”

“It is unclear that future years of investment will be able to undo some of the damage — especially to our weather preparedness.”

If the GOES-R series of satellites are delayed, that would put the GOES program on a similar troubled path as the polar satellite program. A year-long gap in polar satellite coverage is likely to come in 2017, potentially degrading the accuracy of medium-range forecasts. NOAA has said that without polar satellite data, simulations have indicated that the five-day forecasts for Hurricane Sandy would have shown the storm going out to sea, rather than veering sharply toward the New Jersey shore.

NOAA ran up billions in cost overruns for the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, and delays and congressional budget issues have put that program, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), years behind schedule

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