“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.