Tag Archives: weather satellites

NASA/NOAA failure report for GOES-17: The government screwed up

A joint investigation by NASA and NOAA into the failure issues on the GOES-17 weather satellite, launched in March 2018, have determined that the problem with the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), the satellite’s main instrument, was caused by

a blockage in the instrument’s loop heat pipes, which transfer heat from the ABI electronics to its radiator. The blockage restricted the flow of coolant in the loop heat pipes, causing the ABI to overheat and reducing the sensitivity of infrared sensors.

You can read the short full report here [pdf].

My immediate thought in reading the press release above was: So a blockage caused the problem. What caused the blockage? Was it a design failure or a construction mistake? Or what? The answer to this question is even more critical in that the same issues have been identified in GOES-16, though not as serious.

Moreover, GOES-16 and GOES-17 are the first two satellites in a planned new weather constellation of four satellites. Knowing who or what caused this blockage prior to construction and launch of the two later satellites is critical.

I immediately downloaded the report and read it, thinking it would name the contractor and the cause of the blockage.

Nope. The report is remarkably vague about these details, which the report justifies as follows:

The report is NASA sensitive, but unclassified (SBU), because it contains company proprietary information. The report also contains information restricted by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and/or the Export Administration Regulations (EAR). This summary report provides an overview of publicly releasable information contained in the full report.

In other words, this report is an abridged version of the full report, which is being kept classified because it contains both commercial proprietary information and information that if released would violate ITAR regulations designed to keep U.S. technology from reaching foreign hands.

What this public report does imply in its recommendations, in a remarkable vague way, is that the problem occurred because the government had demanded changes during construction that forced significant redesigns by the contractor, none of which were then given sufficient review.

Or to put it more bluntly, NOAA and NASA, the lead agencies in the GOES project, screwed up. They forced the contractor to make changes, probably very late in the process, resulting in inadequate review of those changes.

The recommendations put forth many suggestions to institute a more detailed review process, should late changes in the construction of the next two GOES satellites be required or demanded. Such recommendations however will only further delay and increase the costs for building those satellites. Since the entire constellation went overbudget significantly (from $7 billion initially to $11 billion), and has also been very late (see this GAO report [pdf]), this means that the next two satellites will be even later and more expensive.

For NASA and NOAA this is just fine, pumping more money into each agency. For the taxpayer it is terrible.

The whole process should be dumped. Give the job of building these satellites to the private sector, entirely. Get these agencies out of the construction business. The only contribution they are presently adding is more cost and delays, while also causing satellite failures.

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The private weather industry moves forward

Link here. Key quote:

Early next month, aerospace start-up Spire Global of Glasgow, UK, will send a mini-satellite into space aboard an Indian government rocket. This ‘cubesat’ will join 16 others that are beaming a new type of atmospheric data back to Earth — and some scientists worry that such efforts are siphoning funding away from efforts to push forward the science of weather forecasting. Spire will begin providing observations to the US government on 30 April.

The probes track delays in radio signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites as they pass through the atmosphere — a technique known as radio occultation. Researchers can use the data to create precise temperature profiles of the atmosphere to feed into weather-forecasting models — and eventually, perhaps, climate models.

Spire and its competitor GeoOptics of Pasadena, California, are participating in a pilot project announced in September by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is under pressure from the US Congress to determine whether it can cut costs by using commercial weather data. But scientists worry that such efforts are hampering the development of radio occultation. For years, they have sought federal funding for a project to advance the technique, but Spire and its competitors say they can offer high-quality data for a fraction of the price. [emphasis mine]

The quotes I have highlighted illustrate the hidebound leftist scientific opposition to introducing private enterprise into weather research. The article, published in the journal Nature, never once articulates in any way how these private efforts will hurt scientific research. What it does show is that the private effort will cost a tenth of the government effort while getting launched much faster. The money, however, will go to these private companies, and not the scientific factions that up until now have lived on the government money train.

The complaints here are the same as those I saw in NASA back about a decade ago when NASA first considered hiring private companies to provide it cargo to ISS. This is a turf war. NOAA is now being pressured by Congress to do the same: stop building big expensive weather satellites and buy the service for much less from the private sector. The scientific community sees this as a threat to its funding and is trying to stop it.

With Republicans controlling all three branches of the federal government I think this opposition will be fruitless, and we shall see the shift to private enterprise in weather data-gathering to accelerate.

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NOAA signs first contract for private weather satellites

The competition heats up: NOAA this week signed its first contracts, totaling just over a million dollars, with two different private cubesat companies.

The small deals—$695,000 to GeoOptics and $370,000 to Spire—come as part of NOAA’s Commercial Weather Data Pilot. The deals will allow the agency to evaluate the quality of the firms’ data for forecasts and warnings, and could be the first step in a broader embrace of commercial satellites. Until now, NOAA has gathered data by building and launching its own expensive weather satellites rather than buying data from private companies.

…Plagued by cost overruns on its own satellites, NOAA has been pressured by Congress to explore commercial weather satellites, which included a mandate for the commercial weather pilot in its 2016 appropriations.

There is no reason NOAA cannot shift from being the maker of satellites to being a customer buying weather data from private satellites, much as NASA has been shifting from being a builder of rockets and spaceships to being a buyer of privately built rockets and spaceships. The shift will create competition and innovation while saving the taxpayer a lot of money.

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NOAA plans use of private weather data

The competition heats up: Mandated by Congress to use commercial weather data obtained from privately launched weather satellites, NOAA has announced its first plan for doing so.

The first Commercial Weather Data Pilot, or CWDP, will kick off this summer with a solicitation for GPS radio occultation data of the sort NOAA and Eumetsat have been using for years to improve weather forecasts. GPS radio occultation receivers that have flown on a handful of research satellites and the U.S.-Taiwanese COSMIC constellation obtain highly detailed temperature and humidity soundings by observing tiny distortions of U.S. Air Force GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere. While the U.S. and Taiwan are preparing to replace the six original COSMIC satellites with the first six of 12 planned satellites slated to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy perhaps late this year, meteorologists would like to see scores of additional GPS radio occultation satellites in orbit.

Several companies, including GeoOptics, PlanetiQ and Spire, have announced plans to address that demand by deploying constellations of dozens to hundreds of small satellites equipped with GPS radio occultation receivers. Spire launched its first four operational satellites last September.

If this goes as I hope, private companies will launch enough satellites to provide the data, at a far lower cost than NOAA spends to build and launch its own satellites, so that eventually it will not pay for the government to do it anymore. Just as private space is replacing NASA in supplying crew and cargo to ISS, private space can do the same for NOAA.

And like NASA initially, NOAA’s managers have been very reluctant to allow this to happen, as it will eventually take the business from them and give it to others. Since they, like NASA, can’t do it very efficiently, however, they can’t really argue their case very well, which is why Congress has been forcing their hand.

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Creeping towards commercial and private weather satellites

Link here. The editorial at Space News outlines the effort in Congress to force NOAA to buy weather data supplied by private commercial satellite companies rather than build its own satellites. It also outlines what might be the major reason private companies have never been able to make a profit in the field:

The agency [NOAA] is obliged as a member the World Meteorological Organization [WMO] to share weather data openly and freely with other nations. If that obligation applies to commercially procured data, as NOAA insists, it could dramatically shrink the addressable global market for commercial weather data — to the point that it could shatter business models. – See more at: http://spacenews.com/editorial-inching-toward-a-commercial-weather-policy/#sthash.vG9fs3Sj.dpuf

In other words, private companies can’t sell their data because of the U.S.’s membership in the WMO, which requires that data to be made available for free. To make the commercialization of weather work, the U.S. is going to have to pull out of WMO, something I think will be difficult to sell to Congress.

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Cubesat company raises $80 million

The competition heats up: Spire, a cubesat satellite company focused on data gathering from space, has raised an additional $40 million in investment capital, bringing the total it has raised since 2012 to $80 million.

With the new funds, the company will support further growth and expand its constellation from 20 satellites in 2015 to more than 100 by the end of 2017.

The latest round of financing comes at a time when the need for advancements in weather and maritime data is at an all-time high. With the potentially catastrophic 2016 Weather Gap right around the corner, Spire offers a solution to the $2.4 trillion dollar global problem. Emerging as a leader in the ‘Space Race 2.0,’ Spire is the only commercial weather data provider with scheduled launches in 2015. The company will begin deploying its satellites on a near monthly basis beginning September 2015.

Though the company is willing to gather data in more ways than just weather, its offer to provide weather data suggests that the transition from government to private weather satellites is soon approaching. And there is no reason it shouldn’t. Weather data is very valuable. Just as private cable companies put up satellites to provide communications, so should weather outlets like the Weather Channel. It will pay for itself, and will likely provide us better data than any NOAA satellite.

In addition, this story indicates once again that the age of cubesats is now upon us.

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Privately-built weather satellite constellation to be built

The competition heats up: A private company, dubbed Spire, has announced its intention to launch a 20-satellite constellation of weather satellites, all cubesats, by the end of 2015.

Spire raised $25 million in Series A funding during the summer of 2014, bringing its total amount to $29 million. The company already has customers in a variety of verticals, but Platzer said weather was planned to be a focus from the company’s inception.

…With the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facing an impending weather data gap, an increasing amount of focus has been placed on leveraging commercial options as well. Last year NOAA issued a Request for Information (RFI) on RO that piqued interest from the commercial sector. Congress has also urged the agency to leverage private sector capabilities.

For years I argued that there is no justification for the federal government to provide free weather satellite data to private companies like the Weather Channel. There is more than enough profit to be made tracking and predicting the weather for these companies to launch their own orbiting networks, just as the television and communications industries do. Thus, it is good to see a new start-up take advantage of this need and to push to make a business out of it.

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Problems at the National Weather Service?

According to this news report, since Tuesday the National Weather Service has lost access to some of its satellite data.

The story is very unclear and might not be accurate. For example, it does not state where the problem is. Has a specific satellite failed? Or is the problem on the ground, preventing the NWS from processing data from any of its satellites? It also seems puzzling for such a significant failure to occur on Tuesday and only now on Thursday does anyone notice. I have seen no other news stories about this outage.

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Senate panel proposes major NASA/NOAA budget changes

A Senate panel today proposed shifting the responsibility for building weather satellites from NOAA to NASA.

It is very unclear from this article why the Senate panel proposed this shift. They claim it will save money but I don’t see how.

What I can guess is that there is probably a turf war going on in Congress over this money. For example, shifting these weather satellites to NASA almost certainly means that the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland will get more money, which is almost certainly why Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) is for it.

One thought however: NASA generally focuses on individual missions, not long term operational stuff like weather. I suspect it probably is not a good idea to give this work to NASA.

The same article above also outlined the panel’s proposals for other areas of NASA’s budget. To me, the key issue is the budget for commercial space. The White House requested $830 million. The Senate panel has instead proposed $525 million.
» Read more

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