New NOAA weather satellite has serious problem


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Can’t anybody here play this game? The cooling unit required to take infrared images in the new NOAA weather satellite GOES-17, launched in March, is not functioning properly.

“This is a serious problem,” Volz said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. “This is the premier Earth-pointing instrument on the GOES platform, and 16 channels, of which 13 are infrared or near-infrared, are important elements of our observing requirements, and if they are not functioning fully, it is a loss. It is a performance issue we have to address.”

Detectors for the infrared channels must be cooled to around 60 Kelvin (minus 351 degrees Fahrenheit) to make them fully sensitive to infrared light coming from Earth’s atmosphere. For about 12 hours each day, the cooler inside the Advanced Baseline Imager, or ABI, is unable to chill the detectors to such cold temperatures, officials said.

Infrared images from weather satellites are used to monitor storms at night, when darkness renders visible imagery unavailable. The three visible channels from the ABI are not affected by the cooling problem.

“The other wavelengths, the near-infrared and infrared wavelengths — the other 13 — need to be cooled to some extent beyond the capability of the system at present,” said Tim Walsh, NOAA’s program manager for the GOES-R weather satellite series. “There’s a portion of the day centered around satellite local midnight where the data is not usable, and that’s what we’re addressing.”

GOES-17 is the second of a four satellite constellation being built by NOAA costing $11 billion.

It appears that an identical cooling system was installed on the first of this satellite constellation, GOES-16, and has been working perfectly in orbit since November 2016. Why the new unit isn’t working remains a puzzle.

The real issue here is the cost and complexity of these satellites. Because they are so complex and take so long to build, replacing them is difficult if not impossible. Wouldn’t it be better to launch many cheaper satellites to provide redundancy at a lower cost?

This is a pattern we see throughout the government aerospace industry. NASA’s Webb and WFIRST telescopes are big and take decades to build. God forbid they fail at launch. SLS and Orion are big and take decades to build. God forbid they fail at launch. The Air Force’s numerous military satellites are big and take decades to build. God forbid an enemy takes one out.

In all these cases, failure means we get nothing after spending a lot of time and money. And replacing the loss will take years and billions of dollars.

Common sense says it is time to rethink this entire operation. Unfortunately, this is the federal government. The concept of rethinking anything, or even thinking at all, is too often a completely alien concept. I do not expect anything to change, unless we elect new people in Congress and the Presidency who are willing to take a hammer to this whole insane system and smash it bluntly. Trump is kind of this type of new person, but even he isn’t willing to change that much, only some things, such as the EPA, that irk him in particular. Otherwise, he has left much of the federal bureaucracy alone — as can be seen by his administration and NASA both gearing up to fund both LOP-G and WFIRST— thus continuing this pattern of big and expensive projects that take forever to build.

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  • Edward

    This is yet another example of the ruthless tyranny of space. One small problem causes such a large problem.

    We know that this cryocooler technology is mature and works, because it worked on the previous satellite. So what went wrong this time?

    The article did not go into any details, but presumably the cooler worked properly during tests at the manufacturer, and presumably the system worked during the thermal vacuum test (post integration with the satellite and instruments). So what is the difference between then and now?

    One possible difference (although I won’t bet on it being the cause of the problem) is the vibration during launch. We recently heard of a problem due to improper tightening of screws during assembly ( http://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/more-problems-uncovered-during-testing-of-the-james-webb-space-telescope/ ), but we would have expected them to have found such a problem during the vibration testing, as was the case with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). However, loose screws in the heat pipe/radiator system could cause a heat flow problem. Or if the joint is bonded with something such as epoxy, then a little delamination could be a cause. Please don’t take my speculations too seriously; we will probably eventually hear something about what they think is the cause.

    A general problem with building a set of new satellites every decade or so is that the operator, NOAA in this case, generally wants to incorporate new technologies, some of which may not yet be mature. This is another source of problems in getting new projects off the ground or a source of difficulties during design, manufacture, or test. JWST has gone through a few of these problems, even a cryocooler problem.

    Robert wrote: “The real issue here is the cost and complexity of these satellites. Because they are so complex and take so long to build, replacing them is difficult if not impossible. Wouldn’t it be better to launch many cheaper satellites to provide redundancy at a lower cost?

    The loss of one of these expensive satellites makes for big news, because we put so many resources into it and get little or nothing in return. This is what happened with the Mars Observer satellite in the early 1990s. After Mars Observer was lost, NASA went on a “smaller, cheaper, faster” binge, which still resulted in headlines and complaints when the cheaper probes were lost (e.g. Mars Polar Lander). Cheaper does not really help, when problems arise.

    Privatizing data collection may help, as the loss will not be to the government — thus not an expense to the overtaxed US taxpayer — but will be an expense to the company that loses its satellite — thus an expense only to its owners.

    Earth observation has already become a major industry, with several companies and their satellites providing a lot of Earth coverage. Military communications is also being sent through commercial communication satellites, too. Private companies are planning to explore the Moon, but they have yet to get there*.

    NOAA is testing out privatization of data collection for weather satellites — which are different than the currently privatized Earth observation satellites. It is kind of a chicken and egg problem (or is it a Catch 22?), right now, because companies are reluctant to launch satellites to produce this data without a promise to buy it, and NOAA is reluctant to promise to buy it until there is proof that companies can supply quality data, which they can only do by launching satellites to prove the quality of their data. The testing that NOAA is doing right now is a small scale version of proof of the quality of the data, and it is showing where the private companies need to improve so that hopefully NOAA will not have to build any more expensive satellites with these single points of failure.

    Cheaper satellites should also allow us to put new technologies into orbit relatively quickly, rather than wait a decade for the next generation of large, expensive satellites.

    There are some problems with using a large number of smaller satellites. Some people worry about overcrowding Earth orbit, and others are concerned about the limited amount of available radio frequency bands to transmit the data to Earth. However, we may be able to overcome these concerns and find a way to use low cost redundant satellites in order to reduce the problems generated by the early failure of any one satellite.

    We humans are pretty smart about finding solutions to problems.

    Small satellite companies using new technologies will likely also have difficulties in the development, design, and manufacture of their satellites, but this may not make headlines or cause public consternation as these companies would not burn through taxpayer dollars while they fix their problems. As efficient entities, these companies probably will not burn through nearly as much money as do our large government projects while they fix problems, or for that matter as they develop new technologies; SpaceX is a good example of efficient development of new technologies.

    * An early attempt at private exploration was Dr. Alan Binder’s Lunar Prospector, but that was well before commercial space was shown to be viable, and he could not find enough backers to finish the mission, so he turned to NASA.

    Yes, NASA spent far, far more money than Binder would have spent to finish the mission. Binder did not have a large bureaucracy to feed, but NASA’s (and NOAA’s) is voracious.

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